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'Significant step towards reconciliation:' N.W.T. introduces bill to implement UNDRIP

N.W.T. Premier Caroline Cochrane speaks during a news conference in Yellowknife on Wednesday March 29, 2023. The Northwest Territories government has introduced a bill to guide implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which it says will advance reconciliation in the territory.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Emily Blake

YELLOWKNIFE — The Northwest Territories government has introduced a bill to guide implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which it says will advance reconciliation in the territory.

The proposed legislation, which was co-developed by the territorial government with Indigenous governments and organizations over three years, aims to ensure all future and existing laws, regulations and policies in the N.W.T. are consistent with Indigenous rights. 

"I was proud to introduce this bill," Premier Caroline Cochrane told reporters Wednesday. "(It's a) truly significant step towards reconciliation." 

The N.W.T. Council of Leaders, which includes officials from the territorial and Indigenous governments, has also reached a memorandum of understanding to implement the declaration.

"This is a very important day for Indigenous communities and Indigenous governments," said Danny Gaudet, chief of the Deline Got'ine government. "We're finally starting to recognize the Indigenous First Nations people, the Métis, the Inuit in their rightful place as leaders of their own destiny." 

Gaudet said he wants to see changes to the territory's education system to build capacity and promote Indigenous ideologies, language, tradition and culture. 

"If you can change a generation it's got to be through the education system," he said at a press conference. "If we spend $1 on modern education, we should be spending $5 on traditional stuff to bring that back." 

Paul Harrington, vice president of the Northwest Territory Métis Nation, said he wants Métis to be recognized as First Nations people and hopes implementation of the declaration will advance their land claims.

"I think it'll be good for our people and be good for our communities, good for the Northwest Territories," he said.

Joseph Kochon, senior administrative officer for Behdzi Ahda First Nation, said the bill is a "blueprint" of how the territory will work with Indigenous governments. 

He said many northern communities are not given equal opportunities and want traditional knowledge to be given the same standing as western science. 

"There's a lot of work that has to be done," he said. "It's a beginning and maybe this will help us in the smaller communities to stop repeating ourselves over and over." 

The declaration was adopted by the UN General Assembly in September 2007. It recognizes the rights of Indigenous peoples around the world including self-determination, freedom from discrimination, and free, prior and informed consent. 

While Canada was among member states that initially voted against the declaration over concerns it was inconsistent with Canadian constitutional law, it officially removed its objector status in 2016. A federal act on implementing the declaration in Canada came into force in 2021. 

The Dene Nation voted to reject the federal legislation at a special assembly. 

They raised concerns that Article 46, which upholds the territorial integrity and political unity of the state, could give Canada overriding authority in Dene territory. A report by an N.W.T. legislative committee on the declaration notes the clause has been perceived by some Indigenous people as a back door for countries to push back against the declaration.  

On Wednesday, Premier Cochrane said a majority of Indigenous leaders -- but not all -- had agreed to the memorandum. 

"I really congratulate all the people that worked on this to actually find areas that were common that we agreed with," she said. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 30, 2023.

This story was produced with the financial assistance of the Meta and Canadian Press News Fellowship.

Emily Blake, The Canadian Press

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