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Land issues top Dene agenda
Resource issues dominate annual assembly held in Inuvik

Shawn Giilck
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, July 18, 2013

While land and resource issues were on the minds of the delegates at a Dene National Assembly in Inuvik last week, National Dene Chief Bill Erasmus said he was grateful for a warm welcome.

It was less than two months ago that Erasmus was the subject of sharp criticism by Gwich'in Tribal Council President Robert Alexie and Inuvialuit Regional Corporation chair Nellie Cournoyea for endorsing a Greenpeace-backed motion to limit development in the Arctic.

Erasmus laughs at that now, and said he has close connections with both people. He attributed most of the fuss to the involvement of Greenpeace, which has had a tumultuous relationship over the years with aboriginal people in the NWT.

The conference, which began July 8 and ran through July 11, marked the first time such as assembly had been held in Inuvik since 1989.

Inuvik Tribal Council Chief Herbert Blake was also gratified to see the assembly return to Inuvik.

"It's going very well," he said. "It makes us feel we're part of the process."

"There are some important topics we're discussing, and there's a number of things going on," Blake said. "All of those matters will have some effect on how we do things, how it will affect the land, the water. So we need to be mindful and top of the game when it comes to those kinds of things."

Development issues and how to benefit from them were one of his top priorities.

"We don't have a problem with development," Blake said. "It's the pace of development that is of some concern to use. We're no different than anyone else, we want to be look after ourselves and our people, which we've done for thousands of years."

That's partly due to a relationship between the Dene and the Gwich'in that's been strained from time to time. The Gwich'in are the only members with a separate land-claims final agreement and operate their own tribal council independent of the Dene Assembly.

"It's very constructive (to be here)," Erasmus said. "The last time we met here as an assembly was in 1989. A lot of things have changed and developed since and we're excited to be here."

He noted that Inuvik is a model of the kind of multicultural community that aboriginal groups want to create with their non-aboriginal counterparts.

Erasmus pointed to devolution as one of the key items under discussion.

"I think people realize that, in the end, devolution is not going to occur unless all the chiefs agree," he said. "One chief in this room, even one individual, has the power to stop that. We're attached to the land as individuals, then by communities, then by regions, then as a nation. That's what people have to understand. Unless you do it in the right way, it doesn't happen.

"Never have we all been sitting in the same room and talking from the same interest with a collective view in mind so that this really benefits the North," Erasmus said. "If you have different agendas, it doesn't work. If you look at any of the agreements in the North, if people are opposed to them, it doesn't work. It's very simple. We have to take the time to explain it, and we have to take the time for people to understand it, and then say they support it. It takes very little to stop things. We're not about stopping things, we're about doing things right."

Erasmus also pointed to resource-based issues as another priority. He said that claims to coastal and continental shelf rights and ownership could be one of the next big items to be settled by national and international law.

"The United Nations is going to make a determination on who actually owns that," he said, "and they're going to go 300 miles out into the Beaufort. We don't want to be in the dispute, since we believe we've settled that in 1921 (in a treaty with Great Britain). It's Dene jurisdiction, and that's what the Canadian population needs to understand. We the Dene have more authority than the Canadian government. Those treaties protect Canadian citizens along with those of the Dene First Nation.

"Those are huge issues, and how does all of that play out. We're not here for window dressing, and we're not here to oppose things. We're here because this is our home and we're concerned about the future."

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