Northern Affairs needs to be disbanded, says Gwitchin chief

EDMONTON It’s time for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which governs the country’s three northern territories and its aboriginal…


It’s time for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada, which governs the country’s three northern territories and its aboriginal peoples, to close its doors, says Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Joe Linklater.

“The department has been more of a hindrance of agreement than a help,” Linklater told about 80 people attending Friday’s Truths from the North conference at the University of Alberta, where experts from across Canada met to discuss the potential and impacts of northern development.

All speakers agreed development cannot happen responsibly without aboriginal participation, and varied only in their degree of criticism of Indian and Northern Affairs.

“Land claims and self-government agreements in the Yukon are some of the best-kept secrets — people in Ottawa know nothing about them,” said Linklater.

“Our agreements are with Canada, not with one particular department.

“Northern Affairs does not have the ability to get a mandate to negotiate block funding, for example, from the Finance department or the Treasury Board.

“We would prefer to be able to deal directly with the government as government, not through one department.”

Other speakers echoed Linklater’s sentiments.

“It’s cumbersome,” admitted Donat Savoie, a former chief federal land-claims negotiator who described the bureaucratic tangles of his work in northern Quebec and Nunavik.

At times, the hardest challenge during his 27-year tenure with Northern Affairs was figuring out his own role, said Savoie.

“I can talk about this more freely, now that I am out of the department.”

But keynote speaker Thomas Berger, a former British Columbia Supreme Court justice who spent three years in the 1970s analyzing the potential impacts of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project and who is often hailed as a champion of aboriginal rights, did not endorse the abolition of Northern Affairs.

“It’s been around for more than 100 years; it’s not going to go anywhere quickly,” said Berger in an interview.

“There are problems with it, as all these people will tell you,” he said, motioning to the audience gathered at the University of Alberta conference hall.

“But I have some sympathy for the department. It’s an institution that’s supposed to be achieving its own abolition. That can’t be easy.”

Aboriginal peoples having a seat at the negotiating table with industry is key to successful development in the North, regardless of which government department is also present, Berger said in his address.

“Aboriginal Canadians have to be conscious of the part they play in order to participate in the private sector,” he said.

“That means they have to be educated for the 21st century.”

Arm’s-length development corporations, such as the Vuntut Gwitchin’s, might be the best tools for a First Nation, Inuit or Inuvialuit government to use — if that’s their choice, added Berger.

“All of them are taking that approach,” he said.

But oversight committees that include various stakeholders, such as the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board, are also proving effective, said board chair Gabrielle Mackenzie-Scott.

“(Northern Affairs) says we are agents of the Crown,” Mackenzie-Scott said in her address.

“Developers want certainty; the community wants to be heard; government wants to protect the certainty of their mandate.

“Land-use planning is still not happening, and the capacity of the review board is overloaded, underfunded and understaffed.”

Overall, “there are challenges, but it is working,” she said.

The Yukon is traditionally under-represented at such conferences, noted Berger.

But Doug Clark, scholar-in-residence at Yukon College, and Shawn Francis of the North Yukon Land Use Planning Commission joined Linklater at the conference to explain how the modern vision of land claims is comprehensive of social, ecological and economic factors.

“The Berger Inquiry answered land-use questions for a period of time in the NWT,” said Francis, who referred to Berger as a “northern folk hero.”

“Regional planning in the Yukon has just begun,” he said.

“Sustainable development is now defined as beneficial socio-economic change that does not undermine the ecological and social systems upon which communities and societies are dependent.

“We don’t know where we’re going in the absence of clear objectives.”

Former Yukon News reporter and columnist Graeme McElheran now lives in Edmonton.