Self-government negotiations for a merged Nihtat Gwich’in Council and Inuvik Native Band are upwards of 65 to 70 per cent done, but more consultation is needed with membership before the main details are finalized.
Both groups, which share 99 per cent membership, were presented an update on Nov. 12 at the NGC building.
“We have been working with Jozef Carnogursky on since 2016 on this file,” said government advisor and chief negotiator Dr. Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox. “It will provide powers to a Nihtat Gwich’in government and will also provide substantial funding.”
A topic of discussion since at least 2015, self-government negotiations for the Nihtat Gwich’in Council finally kicked off in 2019, following the decision to pursue the shift alongside the INB, with the support of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in a 2018 resolution.
Then, in May of 2020, negotiations narrowed in on a “governance only” approach, which Irlbacher-Fox said would allow Nihtat to establish itself as a government and access stable long term funding, estimated to be between $1-3 million a year, on top of other funding programs, which will build capacity to improve its services and continue negotiations.
Noting that diplomatic activities slowed down over the year as the Covid-19 pandemic drew away time and resources, Irlbacher-Fox added a tax working group had been set up to determine if a “governance-only” agreement would include taxation powers, which could mean Nihtat could access income tax and GST revenues generated by members on its lands. Discussions about that between Nihtat and the federal government are expected to kick off in the new year.
Irlbacher-Fox stressed that no treaty rights would be lost in the negotiation of a self-government agreement and the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim agreement (GCLCA) would take precedence over any self-government agreements.
While there were concerns raised by regular members who attended the meeting about a lack of information up to this point, Irlbacher-Fox noted part of the plan going forward was to plan consultations to answer key questions that will drive further negotiations. A website is also in the works to provide documents and information for both Nihtat and INB members.
Much of the work to be done is very technical. Irlbacher-Fox noted that should the self-governance agreement go forward, Nihtat would be changed from a federal corporation to its own government. To legally make that possible, the GCLCA will need to recognize self-governments as Designated Gwich’in Organizations (DGOs.) Currently DGOs are subject to Canadian incorporation laws.
Irlbacher-Fox added the consultations are expected to be held monthly until June of 2021, providing regular updates on the negotiations, seeking mandates from the membership on negotiating positions and provide input on developing laws and the Nihtat Gwich’in Constitution.
But first, the next step is for Nihtat Gwich’in Council and INB to complete their merger, which will require changes to the election code of INB and to the bylaws of the NGC. Once that is complete, both groups will effectively elect the same board, with the elected Chief and Council of INB also serving as the President and Board of the NGC.
Both groups will discuss the ideas at their respective organizational meetings, with the INB having their Annual General Meeting on Dec. 5 and NGC hosting their Annual General Assembly Nov. 28-29.
Once the final agreement has been hammered out, the membership of the NGC-INB merger will ratify it by referendum, requiring 51 per cent of the vote to make it official.
With Ottawa currently a minority government, Irlbacher-Fox added that time was of the essence to get a legally binding deal inked, as the current political climate was far more receptive to Indigenous Self Actualization and implementing the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous peoples than it has been in the past.
“I think it’s really clear that this Liberal government, with respect to self-government mandates, you will get a lot more with them than you would, for example, with a Conservative government,” she said. “So that’s also a timeline we’re very conscious of.
“Getting a self-government agreement with this Liberal government will probably get you the best agreement you can get. They are supportive of the UN declaration. They have opened up the coffers in terms of money they’re willing to spend on financing self-governments, which is completely different from three or four years ago.
“So you’re in a really good position if you want to get an agreement right now. That’s politics. Maybe they will get elected again, maybe they won’t, so we’ll just have to be prepared to work with whoever is across from us.”