Tlicho Effective Date

As the canoes approached the land, guns were fired into the air to greet the voyageurs that had been travelling for 8-10 days. It is a yearly custom that people from each of the Dogrib communities travel the trails of their ancestors to the community hosting the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council (DT11C) annual gathering. Then the people come onto the land and shake the thousands of hands waiting to greet them. This year there were about 60 canoes that came into Behchoko (Rae-Edzo) from the three outlying communities of Whati, Gameti and Wekweti. This marked the start of the DT11C 14th annual gathering.

The Dogrib are descendants of the Dene, an Athabaskan Indigenous People of the Northwest Territories. DT11C was the body set up in 1991 to negotiate the land claim and self-government agreement for the Dogrib People. The official meetings began on Wednesday, and the DT11C went through its regular business of reviewing the audited financial statements and distributing scholarships to Tlicho students; Tlicho means Dogrib in their language. The evening was filled with weddings, a feast, drum dance and a countdown to midnight.

The countdown was leading up to the big day, Thursday, August 4, 2005, the effective date of the Tlicho Agreement, the first official day of the Tlicho Government and the Tlicho community governments. For twelve years the DT11C has negotiated the Tlicho Agreement, the first Agreement that combines land claims and self-government in the Northwest Territories, and the second such agreement in Canada. The negotiations were led by Tlicho Chief Negotiator John B Zoe, and on August 25, 2003 the Agreement was signed by the former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, former Premier of the NWT Stephen Kakfwi, Grand Chief Joe Rabesca and the chiefs of the four Tlicho communities.

In 2004 all that remained for the Tlicho Agreement to become effective was for the federal government to pass the appropriate settlement legislation. The Tlicho Bill C-14 received third reading in the House Commons on December 7th, 2004 and in the Senate on February 10th, 2005. Several dozen Tlicho delegates were present in Ottawa for each of these readings; for many it was their first time out of the North. There they sat in the galleries, wide-eyed watching democracy at work. The Senate reading was a particularly extraordinary day whereby a huge tea dance broke out in the Senate lobby to celebrate the Bill C-14’s final passage. Everyone stood shoulder to shoulder in a big circle dancing and singing the Tlicho traditional songs.

Midnight of the effective date was celebrated with beautiful fireworks in the community. What I hadn’t realized is that the majority of the spectators had never seen fireworks before, other than on TV. Most seemed very happy, though a few people were not; they felt it was wrong or that it sounded like war, and one man was shaking his head and saying that it wasn’t good for the fish. The drum dance continued after the fireworks and ended in a huge wonderful circle of a tea dance.

The official ceremony began Thursday morning with the swearing in of the new chiefs and councillors of the Tlicho community governments. The current chiefs of each community made their final speeches; the DT11C 14th annual gathering was officially adjourned, and with that, the DT11C ceased to exist. It felt exciting and I think a bit sad all at the same time.

The drummers walked into the room dressed in their beautiful beaded hide vests. Behind them in similar garment followed the members of the Tlicho Assembly, Grand Chief Joe Rabesca, the four Tlicho community government chiefs, the two councillors from each community and the speaker. It was the first annual gathering and first sitting of the Tlicho Assembly. Bishop Croteau along with the drummers led the opening prayer, and Father Pochat proceeded to swear in the Tlicho Assembly members. The Assembly continued with the passage of the first Tlicho laws, the Tlicho Government starter budget and remarks by the Grand Chief and other Assembly members.

We then went outside for the flag raising ceremony. A group of enthusiastic children began the ceremony by singing O Canada in Tlicho. The song was very heart-felt and generated laughter, cheers and tears among the thousands of people standing by. Elder Alexis Arrowmaker proceeded to retire the old DT11C flag, which was followed by the unveiling of the new Tlicho Government flag. There was a collective sigh in awe of seeing the flag for the first time followed by many cheers. The new flag was raised, and James WahShee, former negotiator and designer of the flag explained the symbols. The royal blue represents the sub-arctic Tlicho Nation territory; the four tepees represent the four Tlicho communities, which together form the Tlicho Nation, Government and Assembly; the sun and river represent the words of the great Chief Monfwi who signed the Treaty 11 in 1921. He said that as long as the sun rises and sets and the river flows forward and not backward the Tlicho People will honour the Treaty; finally, the North Star represents direction and a new era for the Tlicho Nation, which moves united into the future. Flag and gift presentations followed, along with speeches from some of the influential and integral people who helped pass the Tlicho Bill. The flag raising ceremony ended with prayer by the drummers.

The celebrations continued in the hall with hundreds of people attending the feast. We had caribou ribs, bannock, rice, dry fish, fruit, juice, and many other delicious foods that now have settled in my tummy and slipped out of my mind. More speeches and gift presentations were made then the tables were cleared from the dining hall for the drum dance to begin. We danced and danced and danced. A live band also played, as well as two-step, square dance and jigging; there was something for everyone. As for myself, I spent the night drum dancing, as it’s one of the things I miss the most about not living with the Tlicho.

The following day began with the feeding of the fire. This is a ceremony to give thanks, and to pray to the Creator and those who have passed away. Food and tobacco offerings were thrown into the fire and many prayers were made. After the ceremony we reconvened inside for the nominations of the Grand Chief. What I witnessed was an incredible marriage of procedural democracy with the Tlicho traditional values and way of life. The drum dances, hand games and celebrations continued throughout the weekend.

This week marked a unique historic accomplishment for the Tlicho People and our country as a whole. I am proud to have a government that is willing to negotiate with, recognize, and honour our First Nations People as it has done with the Tlicho. It is unavoidable that there will be growing pains with the newly formed governments, as is the case with all government, but I am certain of the inevitable success of the Tlicho People. As the Honourable Ethel Blondin-Andrews stated in her speech during the flag raising ceremony, the Tlicho have always been self-governing, today is really a symbol of the government’s recognition of these rights.

Nadine Neema ©2005

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