Tlicho have their day in Parliament

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OTTAWA, Ontario - After 12 years of negotiations, which produced a 244-page
treaty, and another 15 months waiting for parliamentary approval, the
Dogrib First Nation has finally had its Tlicho Land Claims and
Self-Government Act approved.

Bill C-14 was overwhelmingly passed in the House of Commons by a 198 - 94
count on Dec. 7, a vote that was split exactly down party lines. The ruling
Liberals, with their minority government, received the expected and
unanimous support from the left-of-center New Democrats and the Bloc
Quebecois while en masse the Conservatives, the official opposition, denied
their support to the legislation.

Seated in the upper Members Gallery, a contingency of 31 Dogrib members
(also known as Tlicho) from the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) watched as
some of the individual Members of Parliament (MPs) nodded to the witnesses
above when standing to register their approval. Following the bill's
passage, there was about 30 seconds of polite applause by the victorious
Liberals before the Speaker of the House called for order.

One of the elders who embarked on the three-airplane, 10-hour journey to
Ottawa was Alexis Arrowmaker, 84. Calling this treaty "special and sacred,"
he said this undertaking involved the entire Tlicho community of 3,000
people residing in four villages and in Yellowknife, the N.W.T.'s capital.

"We discussed how our ancestors left us their legacy and how they built a
foundation for us, it's our turn to make land claims for future generations
to cherish," Arrowmaker said, through a translator.

What the Tlicho will receive is self-governance over 15,200 square miles,
an area the size of Switzerland, in the heart of the N.W.T. The deal also
includes annual payments totaling about $152 million Cdn. ($122 million
U.S.) by the federal government over a period of 15 years plus certain
royalties to mineral extractions.

Then-Prime Minister Jean Chretian signed the treaty during a much
celebrated trip to Canada's Far North in August 2003.

Its enactment into law was anticipated to happen last year though a change
of government and the federal election this past June delayed this
legislation.

In the day before the Commons vote, Bill C-14 went through its third
reading, a stage where a law will likely pass. Liberal MP for the Western
Arctic and Minister of State (Northern Development), Ethel Blondin-Andrew,
who seconded the motion, prompted the debate for its followers.

Once she put down her prepared text, the five-time elected MP expressed her
emotions about the treaty.

"This is an outstanding piece of work for the people of this territory,"
Blondin-Andrew said. "They have a long history and attachment to this land
and this is what Canada is about, full and equal opportunity."

New Democrat Pat Martin, his party's Indian and Northern Affairs critic,
was even more animated. Stating how Canada was the only country in the
world to recognize Aboriginals and their rights within a Constitution, he
shot back at naysayers regarding the validity of treaty making when for so
many years First Nations and Inuit were given the economic shaft.

"Why don't these people become entrepreneurial and create business?,"
Martin rhetorically asked. "Out of what? Mud, clay and sand?"

What will give it potency, said the band's chief negotiator, is the
thoroughness of the Tlicho document and the length of time in its
preparation. Also in Ottawa was John B. Zoe who acknowledged that with more
than a decade of talks and consultations there were no shortcuts.

"That's what will make this even stronger and people committed to the
process, so in some way [any delays] it's good for us," said Zoe.

Despite the known certainty of the bill passing, there was still some
last-minute posturing from the opposing Conservatives. While stating they
were not against this particular deal, the unity of Tory MPs' concerns
about treaties means different rights are extended to certain Canadians
thus creating a series of racially-based laws.

Of particular note was one article (7.13.12), in which the Conservatives
continually hammered away. Under this clause, it is required that Ottawa
negotiate with the Tlicho as to the how the land will be used in the
future, prompting some critics to question as to whether Canada will
actually have sovereignty in this portion of the N.W.T.

Citing a 1995 internal document produced by the Liberal government of that
time, the Conservatives noted it wasn't required that Canada cede this
privilege to the Tlicho.

"This government has failed to read what this document has and will this be
extended to other Aboriginal groups and 631 other communities [bands] and
will other [non-Native] Canadians be extended this right?," queried MP
Jeremy Harrison who sits on the Parliamentary Committee of Aboriginal
Affairs.

Zoe later replied that sovereignty is not an issue. Instead of challenging
the Canadian government, the Tlicho want to engage in discussions regarding
future economical and social issues. Yet, without this provision, there
would be no protection over this land and any self-governance would be
tenuous.

"It wasn't so long ago with the infringement of our rights, they wouldn't
even bother to consult us or seek our views when it involved our people.
That's all we're looking for," Zoe said.

As for Arrowmaker, who is one year older than the original Treaty 11
negotiated in 1921 by the federal government upon discovery of oil in the
N.W.T, believes this deal, in all of its transparency, will permit the
Tlicho to advance.

"Our meetings are always open to the public and non-Aboriginal people were
present," he said. "We're quite capable of running our own affairs and
there are goals we have for the future."

Bill C-14 is expected to be rubber-stamped at a later time by the unelected
Senate where motions passed by the House of Commons are rarely challenged.