A controversial move to trim down the negotiating team for the NWT Métis Nation as a cost saving measure was defeated at last week’s annual general assembly in Fort Smith, where the issue of fiscal prudence topped discussion priorities.
The vast majority of voting delegates opposed a motion made by Hay River Métis Council president Wally Schumann seeking to limit the negotiation team to the Métis Nation president, the local Métis council presidents, the chief negotiator, legal team and land team, eliminating elders and vice presidents from the table.
While admitting the motion was by far the most controversial to be debated last week, Schumann said the nation needs to consider money saving measures in light of the mounting costs of ongoing meetings with the federal government on lands and resources.
Delays have contributed to the costliness of negotiations. Sixteen neighbouring Aboriginal governments threw a wrench into the Métis claim process in 2012 by requesting consultation with Canada on the Métis agreement-in-principle (AiP).
According to the Métis’ chief negotiator Jake Heron, a total of $26 million has been borrowed to reach the current point in negotiations. Though money borrowed before the signing of the AiP will not be subject to interest, the nation is expected to repay the principal owed, as well as interest on any money borrowed after the signing until the effective date of the final agreement.
The federal steering committee and the NWT government have since approved the AiP, which is now being considered by cabinet on behalf of Canada before it will be signed by all parties.
With the AiP done, the Métis are now preparing for the final push to resolve the 50 remaining make-or-break issues with Canada before arriving at a final land and resources agreement. Those include big ticket items, like land selection in Wood Buffalo National Park.
Schumann said having fewer people at the table would increase the efficiency of negotiations.
“With a large group of people, we’re spending a lot of time on discussing issues, recycling issues, talking it through and it’s got us to where we are; we’ve got our AiP. Fifty punted issues means there are some very hard negotiations coming,” he said. “I think with a smaller team at the table… it’s going to help us condense negotiations to a shorter time.”
After negotiations, the team would be expected to hold a larger discussion in their communities to update the 3,000 members of the nation, including the elders, and get feedback, Schumann said.
But most around the table disagreed, saying the elders who were responsible for getting the nation to its current stage add power to the negotiating team.
“I feel that the more people go, what we’re doing now with the status quo, gives us more strength,” said Cara-Lynn Bailey of Hay River. “By taking the elders with us, it makes us stronger. It gives us power. Without their knowledge and history, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Fort Smith Métis Council president Ken Hudson said the conversation is an important one to have, but thought Schumann’s motion was premature, considering the negotiating team is still in the process of confirming what the federal government is going to pay for. Hudson said previous conversations indicated Canada would be paying for the Métis’ self-government negotiations, and until anything is decided, the team should be left the size it is.
Vice presidents are also often forced to go in place of presidents, and so should be kept an active part of the conversation, Hudson said.
Delegates did vote unanimously in favour of expediency on the upcoming final agreement negotiations. A resolution, also put forth by Schumann, pushes Métis leaders to make every effort to schedule monthly, four-day negotiation sessions with the governments of the NWT and Canada, rather than the current schedule of bimonthly two-day negotiations.
“If we don’t ask the government to make the move to expedite the process, we will spend another five or six years, and I’m not willing to spend another $7-8 million of our money and find we’ve spent more than half our money on negotiations,” Schumann said. “I’m looking to at least have a conversation with the governments that are at the table with us.”