As communities come together for the 100th anniversary of Treaty 11, Gwich’in Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik is reflecting on the century-old verbal agreements and the legal frameworks that have evolved out of them.
He’s also attempting to quash misinformation on where Treaty 11 ends and later agreements affecting the Gwich’in people, such as the Gwich’in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement (GCLCA) which is recognized as a modern treaty. Kyikavichik said there’s a misconception by some that people have to choose between one or the other, but that’s simply not the case.
“Treaty 11 is the foundation of our land-claim agreement,” he said. “It established our sovereignty and in essence our title to these lands here in the Mackenzie Delta. The work that we’ve undertaken over the last almost-30 years have been to continue to assert our sovereignty in the lands that are now known as the Gwich’in Settlement Region.”
Signed over 30 days and based heavily on a translated verbal understanding, Treaty 11 was established between Chief Paul Niditchie in Tsiigehtchic July 26 and Chief Julius Salu in Fort McPherson on July 28 and a delegation from Ottawa in 1921. The verbal promise was the Gwich’in people could continue to live their lives as they have for time immemorial and Canadian settlers could come to the region to live and build communities. However, in the years that followed the federal government instead established the residential school system in the region, overseen by the Catholic and Anglican Churches. So Kyikavichik noted he and many Gwich’in had very mixed feelings about the treaty and are still struggling with the inter-generational trauma that came out of the last century.
It wasn’t until landmark cases were bought before Supreme Court of Canada that Ottawa was forced to honour its agreements with the Gwich’in and other groups.
“The myriad of cases in the Supreme Court of Canada, especially over the last 30 years, that have worked to define what is known as inherent rights and title in the Canadian court system,” he said. “There was a bit of an awakening of Indigenous Canada in the ‘60s and ‘70s on some of these issues. Consequent court cases affirmed and made it law that the Canadian government or the Crown was not to be engaged in any ‘sharp dealings’ with Indigenous People.”
Kyikavichik explained that Treaty 11 served as the foundation for the GCLCA, which affirms Gwich’in sovereignty to the land and expands on it.
The GCLCA also removes any legal definitions between Gwich’in and Metis and First Nations, as well as Status and Non-Status Indians, establishing anyone of Gwich’in heritage as fully Gwich’in.
“That’s one of the things I’m most proud of the GCLCA,” said Kyikavichik. “It made us all Gwich’in. There is no dispute.”
Covid-19 precautions lead to payment confusion
One area of confusion this year is how the traditional payment system is being handled.
As part of Treaty 11, each Gwich’in is given $5, which Kyikavichik described as a symbolic gesture of the principal of the initial agreement.
However, because of the Covid-19 pandemic, last year and this year the federal government made changes to how the payments would be distributed — however, everyone is still entitled to their money.
He explained First Nations have several options before them. They can have receive their payment by mail or direct deposit using a Treaty Annuity Request Form, or are able to defer payments until the next year and receive several years at once. Alternatively, bands may collect and distribute the payments on the government’s behalf or defer payments until a future year. In some instances, a ceremonial payment presentation may be offered at should a First Nation desire it with limited attendance to ensure Covid-19 safety.
Kyikavichik added it was important for Gwich’in to remember what life was like before the treaties and reach for that in the modern context.
“When I think about us as Gwich’in, I think of before the Treaty was signed,” he said. “Living on the land, largely following the porcupine caribou herd, trapping and making a living in the fur industry. Fishing in the summer, hunting caribou in the winter. Completely self-sustaining, in acknowledged territory. Exclusivity and title to this area, and how proud our people were in those days.
“Our Elders tell us it was a good life but a hard life. One you had to sweat for. That’s what I think back to when looking back on the commemoration of Treaty 11.”