Lutsel K’e Dene First Nations lawyer Larry Innes discusses the ramifications of the Environment and Natural Resources investigation of the Lutsel K’e First Nation camp last September and how a path forward may be forged.

Cassandra Blondin-Burt (CBB): Do you think that Environment and Natural Resources Minister Shane Thompson is avoiding the elephant in the room by focusing on narratives based around “We didn’t really do much wrong?” It seems to me that not only does this create a dangerous illusion, but it actually creates more potential division for the Indigenous, and non-Indigenous residents of our territory because you’d have to have a significantly nuanced understanding of territorial and historical context to understand the emotional upheaval and trauma this causes our communities.

Larry Innes (LI): He is very much framing this — his underlying argument is “I have an end, which is that “I’m trying to protect the caribou and in pursuit in that end I’m justified, and my officers are justified in using any means necessary to accomplish that goal,” and maybe that is how the minister is seeing this, but that is not what our law allows. Our law’s very conscious. And this is the whole history of both Indigenous rights and charter rights, which is that the all-powerful state, when unchecked, will create all sorts of injustice for individuals and for communities. And certainly Indigenous communities in the Northwest Territories know this all too well — the history of colonization — which is that, from the mind of the colonizer, and this is simply a furthering of this thinking, which is, “No, this is going to be good for you, we’re going to keep the caribou by traumatizing your children and your Elders.

Clearly it’s that last part that is out of their mind, but is really a part of the colonial mentality where you exclude the inconvenience of your colonial agenda by just minimizing or just alienating, or othering, those experiences. These communities are so complex. This is what I love about Lutsel K’e — they are bouncing back and saying, you did wrong to us, now we are going to tell you A) why we think it’s wrong and B) how to reconcile. And this is really how the chief is framing it, which is, “Minister, let’s begin with an apology, let’s begin with a moment of recognition. You overstepped lines that your courts have drawn, but what are we going to do about it?”

CBB: You know I didn’t think in these terms, Larry, but this — the chief offering this olive branch — is an act of restorative justice on a nation-to-nation level, which really exemplifies Dene law: sharing, caring, and respect, which I think apply, clearly, here within political spheres.

LI: And pointing out that this is from an Indigenous legal order perspective — that Dene Law kind of response — you know, it’s weird for me as a Western-trained lawyer. It’s just so obvious, that in response, we offer to educate you, to help you understand, and we need to help you get things right. It’s such a transition, it’s such a jarring transition, that it really needs to be emphasized.”

CBB: Because offering means for amelioration, it is an act of legal and political generosity and diplomacy that I think is often overlooked, correct?

LI: Oh, absolutely, yes. It is all of those things. It’s true statespersonship. This is not the first time this has happened, this is something which happened before. And why it hurts so much now is that we thought that was behind us. You know? They thought that their kids would be safe from this. Here it is again.

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