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Gwich'in land claim agreement turns 20
Anniversary celebrates work done, highlights issues still to be dealt with

Laura Busch
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, April 26, 2012

Last Sunday, Inuvik hosted anniversary celebrations for the Gwich'in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement, two decades to the day after the original document was signed.

NNSL photo/graphic

Gwich'in elder Renie Martin, right, was at the front of the line loading up her plate at the community feast Sunday. - Laura Busch/NNSL photo

"We have a future to worry about and work on, but today is about celebrating the things we have done," said Gwich'in Tribal Council president Richard Nerysoo to the crowd gathered in the Inuvik arena for the community feast Sunday night.

While it may have been a day of celebration, it was also a day of reflection on the challenges still faced by the Gwich'in people and the important work that has yet to be done.

Talks were held throughout the afternoon at Sir Alexander Mackenzie School, with Nerysoo, Inuvik-Boot Lake MLA Robert C. McLeod and Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus among the speakers.

Many issues were raised during the talks, including the importance of a self-government agreement, the relationship between the Gwich'in and the federal and territorial governments and their role in major infrastructure projects like oil development and highway construction.

"It's our duty as leaders ... to defend the land claim agreement, defend the rights and the interests of our people and ensure that whatever was intended to be accomplished under the land claim agreement or our treaties is followed up properly and respectfully by government," Nerysoo told Inuvik Drum. "Whether it's the Government of Canada or the Government of the NWT.

"If that doesn't happen, we have to defend the rights of our people. It's not personal."

Above all, the land claim agreement reinforces and adds to Treaty 11, Nerysoo told the crowd who sat and listened to hours of presentations throughout the afternoon.

Nerysoo spoke of his father, who was born on Herschel Island and grew up in a cabin on Shingle Point. He also talked about his mother giving birth to him alone in a tent in the Beaufort Delta.

"When we talk about those things, we are connected to it," said Nerysoo. "This is what our land claim is all about. It's about who we are, and it's about our future."

As minister of Indian and Northern Affairs in the 1990s, Tom Siddon oversaw the signing of important treaties and agreements between the Government of Canada and Northern aboriginal groups. On Sunday at the Inuvik event, he called on Prime Minister Stephen Harper to treat documents like the Gwich'in Land Claim Agreement as a living document, "and not slip backwards and let lawyers unravel it."

"We have to stand firmly on the ground that this agreement was signed on 20 years ago," said Siddon.

At the event, he spoke warmly of the time he spent in the Delta over the course of the weekend, including winning the jive contest in Tsiigehtchic with his wife and subsequently blowing a tire on the way back to Inuvik on the Dempster Highway at about 3 a.m. He said he was particularly touched by seeing all generations celebrating and having fun together.

"It is the essence of community," he said, adding that in the south, a lot of that is lost because, "the world has changed."

Siddon took the opportunity to speak out against the Treaty 11 document, which began in Tsiigehtchic in 1921. He questioned whether aboriginal leaders had known what they were signing, especially considering that the government officials who travelled from the south had the agreement signed by 5 p.m. the same day they arrived in the community.

"It isn't worth the paper it was written on, except as a statement of friendship and co-habitation," said Siddon.

However, Nerysoo did not affirm this view of the treaty, saying that it is important to remind the people of what it is they signed. All these documents recognize the rights and interests of the aboriginal people and should be primarily used as tools to manage lands and resources, he said.

"I think that the claim itself is a tool," said Nerysoo. "It's not a document that provides final answers, it provides the mechanism for us to engage in all these areas, whether it's governing our lands, protecting the rights and interests of our future generations, whether or not it is participating in our economy and designing what that economy looks like."

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