The Dene Nation is looking to the Supreme Court for help defending its members’ treaty and Aboriginal rights.
The organization, representing governments in northeastern Alberta and the Dehcho, Akaitcho, Tlicho, Gwich’in and Sahtu regions of the Northwest Territories, sent a letter last week to Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin of the Supreme Court of Canada requesting assistance in upholding Aboriginal and treaty rights it claims are being ignored by federal, territorial and provincial governments.
“Essentially what happens is we win a court case and the government then interprets it differently. The federal government says, ‘You may have won, however…’ and then they proceed to act as if we didn’t win,” Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus told The Journal. “Canada has eliminated a lot of what we understand to be part of the body of rights and privileges that we have as indigenous peoples, and this needs to be brought forward. We want them upheld and implemented and enforced.”
Erasmus said the choice was made to appeal to the Supreme Court as a separate entity from Parliament and the executive branches of government. He said McLachlin can respond in a number of ways, from a public announcement to a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper or a letter back to the Dene Nation.
“The Supreme Court is compelled to have Canada follow the laws that they interpret,” he said. “The intent here is to bring this forward into the mainstage and deal with it so that we move forward, because every other situation when someone wins a court case, it’s no longer a question of law – it’s implemented. But in our instance, it’s not, so we have to get to the bottom of it.”
The decision to contact the Supreme Court was made during the Dene Nation’s 42nd annual general assembly last July in Whati, where chiefs, councillors, elders and other Aboriginal representatives raised concerns that government decisions around regulatory boards, devolution, industrial development and wildlife ignored the need to consult treaty First Nations and claimant groups as landowners rather than stakeholders.
Chiefs complained that devolution negotiations in the NWT were not entered into in “good faith” with Dene First Nations and that the high number of First Nations that continue to be without self-government is unacceptable.
“The courts have made it very clear that our treaties are peace and friendship,” Erasmus said. “And the fact that we were never conquered makes it very clear that the land still belongs to us and we have an interest in everything that occurs here.”