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Forging ahead

Derek Neary
Northern News Services

Fort Simpson (Jan 28/05) - Despite a lull in Deh Cho self-government negotiations, a constitution for a future Deh Cho government is continuing to evolve.

The document, in draft form, spells out how a future government based on Dene laws and customs would function and be formed.

One of the proposals is to merge band councils, Metis boards and municipal councils as single community authorities. An undetermined percentage of seats will be set aside for Deh Cho Dene and Metis candidates at the community and regional levels.

Those seats may be filled by election, by appointment or by a combination thereof. Voting rights and eligibility for office for other residents will be granted with Deh Cho citizenship, which could take six months to 10 years.

Page 6 of the draft constitution states, "It is necessary to balance the fundamental civil right to vote in elections against the need to preserve a strong local identity and ensure that temporary residents of the region do not end up controlling the government of the territory."

Grand Chief Herb Norwegian said a Deh Cho government will ensure aboriginal people have greater control over their lands and how programs and services are delivered.

"It shouldn't be seen as a racist kind of government," Norwegian contended. "Because our people are actually land owners, then (others) who want to actually live in the Deh Cho territory and work here and raise family, we certainly welcome that. Of course they bring a special expertise when they come to our territory. Together we can enjoy that authority."

Kevin Menicoche, Nahendeh MLA and a Deh Cho Dene, said he is in favour of a three to five-year residency requirement for non Deh Cho Dene and Metis. That is long enough for people to develop an understanding of the people and culture, he said.

"The fear is always that you guys here for six months will eventually outnumber us," he explained.

The grand chief acknowledged that some people, particularly GNWT employees, have been "hesitant" about aspects of the constitution, which is subject to negotiation with the federal government. Civil servants have no reason to fear for their jobs or their level of wages and benefits, Norwegian insisted.

"There's no way that we're going to start weeding them out. After all, the principle being that they serve our people and they'd have to be catered to," he said.

Menicoche said there may even be a temporary "shadow government" like there is in the Yukon during the transition phase.

The Tli Cho (Dogrib) agreement will also serve as a model that people in the Deh Cho can monitor and learn from in the meantime, Menicoche suggested. He added he believes a need for some type of central government will remain, but the form of future representation remains unknown.

Transfers of power from the federal and territorial governments to a Deh Cho regime will likely begin within the next five years, said Norwegian.

The draft constitution is available to the public and everyone will have a chance to comment on it at upcoming public meetings, he said.

At the annual Deh Cho Assembly in Kakisa this summer, there will hopefully be Dehcho First Nations leadership approval to use the constitution as the basis for an agreement-in-principle with the federal government, said Norwegian. However, he added that the document will remain flexible and can be amended every five years.