With the signing of the Tlicho Land Claims and Self-Government Agreement in the Autumn of 2003 a new and different Canadian polity came into existence. Until 25 August, 2003, Canada was made up of ten provinces with jurisdictions deriving from the Canadian Constitution, and three territories with powers devolved from the federal government - and in the case of the newest territory of Nunavut, powers inherent in 'the existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada' as recognised in Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. Tlicho is something different: not a Province, but with many of the powers and jurisdictions of the ten Canadian provinces; not a territory, for many of its powers derive from pre-existing aboriginal rights recognised by the Canadian state rather than bestowed by the federal government; and not a municipality because its powers do not derive from a provincial or territorial government. Tlicho is something radically new and is expected to be an example to the world of how to honour colonial obligations to aboriginal peoples.
At the signing of the Tlicho Agreement in Behchoko, then-Prime Minister Jean Chretien remarked:
What we see today is that in spite of the evolution of society, you have kept your culture and pride. This is the glory of Canada - we can be what we are and at the same time be part of the greater Canada.
In the summer of 1921, HA Conroy set off north from Edmonton to negotiate a treaty between the king and the first nations of the Mackenzie River Watershed. Among these groups of fishers and trappers were the people known to the outside world as the Dogrib, but to themselves as the Tlicho.
At the time that Conroy made his way north, the Tlicho - at about 800 - were the most populous of the nations to sign Treaty 11 that summer. Conroy described the Tlicho as being 'the largest band of Indians...and...the most inaccessible.' For countless generations, the Tlicho had hunted and fished in a large area to the north of Great Slave Lake. In modern times they would travel each spring to the Hudson's Bay Company post at Fort Rae (Behchoko) to trade.
Treaty 11 was signed by Monfwi for the Tlicho on 22 August, 19211. Monfwi agreed to 'cede, release, surrender and yield up to the Government of the Dominion of Canada, for His Majesty the King and His Successors forever, all their rights, titles, and privileges whatsoever to the lands' covered by the treaty. In return, Monfwi's people and the other signatory nations would receive 'reserves' of land on which they could continue their traditional way of life along with certain regular material and monetary grants from the crown. The reserves were 'not to exceed in all one square mile for each family of five, or in that proportion for larger or smaller families'. On that land, the Tlicho were to have the right to continue their way of life relatively undisturbed. A rough calculation would see the 800 Tlicho of 1921 being granted a reserve of some 160 square miles, much less than the 39,000 square kilometres acknowledged to belong to them in the Tlicho Agreement.
Perhaps Conroy underestimated the Tlicho population in 1921 as there are some 3000 members of the Tlicho nation today. Most continue to hunt and fish on their traditional lands while many are moving into industrial work, particularly with the diamond mines, and into the service sector. The Tlicho language, which is taught in the schools, is spoken by most people in the Tlicho territory. Unlike so many aboriginal languages in the world it does not seem to be in danger of being lost.
The traditional territory of the Tlicho was described Chief Monfwi as Mowhi Gogha De Niitlee. This territory covers a roughly circular area to the north of Great Slave Lake into what is now Nunavut in the north-east and almost to the shores of Great Bear Lake in the north-west. The area which is the subject of the Tlicho agreement is much smaller, being an area stretching from the tip of the north arm of Great Slave Lake to encompass the four Tlicho communities. The Canadian Government webpage concerning the Tlicho Agreement includes maps of the various territorial claims and Tlicho lands.
Tlicho lands consist of northern barren lands, forests, lakes and rivers. The land is rich in wildlife with great potential for eco-tourism. Canada's two diamond mines are on Tlicho land.
Behchoko is the largest of the four Tlicho communities with a population of almost 2000. The community is actually within twin hamlets separated by 24 kilometres. The Hudson's Bay Company established a post in the area in 1790 and Fort Rae was established near the present site of Rae in 1852. Electricity arrived in 1959. In 1965 construction began on Edzo, adding modern services and a school. An aerial photograph of Behchoko and more information can be found at the NWT Legislature's webpage.
Wha Ti (Lac la Martre)
The Wha Ti community has a population of around 400. A Hudson's Bay Company post was established in the area in 1793. Today the community has the usual amenities of a rural hamlet: a school, a health centre, a community hall and various recreational facilities.
Gameti (Rae Lakes)
Gameti has a population of nearly 300 and facilities similar to those at Wha Ti. Unlike Wha Ti and Behchoko, Gameti did not become a permanent settlement until the 1970s. Before the building of the school and airstrip, Gameti was a seasonal camping ground. Today Gameti depends on fishing, trapping and hunting. The hamlet is sited at the heart of a string of lakes that form a route between Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake.
Wekweti (Snare Lake)
At a little over 100 residents, Wekweti is the smallest of the Tlicho communities. The community has a school and the Snare Lake Store which provide for some local needs.
In the mid-1970s negotiations on land claims between the Canadian Government and the Dene nations (of which the Tlicho are one) and the Metis in the Northwest Territories began. This was a complicated process involving a number of treaties and peoples with overlapping claims. After the rejection of an almost finalised comprehensive agreement in 1990, the Tlicho submitted their own regional claim in 1992. By the beginning of 2000, the Tlicho Agreement was nearly complete but a ratification vote was held off while the Tlicho negotiated agreements with the Deh Cho and the Akaitcho concerning their overlapping claims. Overlap agreements were reached in autumn 2002. In June 2003 the Agreement was ratified by a 92% majority of the Tlicho people. On 25 August, 2003, 82 years after Chief Monfwi signed Treaty 11, the Tlicho Agreement came into effect with a signing ceremony in Behchoko.
The Tlicho Agreement preserves the aboriginal right of the Tlicho people to 39,000 square kilometres of their traditional lands. In return for the huge amount of their land that they are giving up, the Tlicho will receive a series of payments totalling 152 million dollars over 15 years. The Tlicho land is communal land, to be managed by the Tlicho government. The four communities have their own governments which are structured differently from other municipalities in Canada. The Tlicho retain all surface and subsurface rights on their land, a right which places the Tlicho in parallel to the Provinces. The federal government, as it does in the rest of Canada, retains control over criminal law, but the Tlicho can pass and enforce civil laws, levy taxes and collect resource revenues. The Tlicho people continue to be citizens of the north-west territories with all of the attendant rights, responsibilities and services. The Tlicho Agreement creates a new polity that is carefully crafted so that the Tlicho people will not be restrained in the preservation and development of their own culture within Canada.
Throughout the development and implementation of the Tlicho agreement, the utmost respect has been paid to Chief Monfwi and Treaty 11 which he signed in 1921. Both sides of the negotiations have aimed to recapture the good intentions of the original treaty. In the Tlicho Agreement Summary Book this desire is expressed with hope for the future and a specific regret for the past:
After Treaty 11 was signed in 1921, little could be done to make sure that Canada (and later the Government of the Northwest Territories) kept its promises. The Tlicho Agreement is a new treaty. It affirms and builds upon Treaty 11. To make sure promises are kept this time, the Tlicho Agreement is accompanied by an implementation plan.
The implementation plan lays out all responsibilities and costs involved in the implementation of the Tlicho agreement and specifies who is to pay the costs.
After it is ratified by the Canadian parliament, it is expected that the specific promises of the Tlicho agreement will be kept. Both parties to the agreement are bound by their most fundamental laws: the Tlicho by their ancient traditional law, the Canadian Government by Section 35 of the Canadian Constitution. The recognition of Tlicho as a distinct polity within Canada is the most recent fulfilment of the promise of Canada's highly successful policy of multiculturalism. Canada has been transformed in less than four decades from a society of English and French solitudes into a culture which welcomes all to hold onto their distinct native culture and language to become 'a part of the greater Canada.'