As hundreds of Dogrib, Slavey, Chipewyan, and Cree Indians watched in front of a Roman Catholic mission beside Great Slave Lake, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed Monday a tentative agreement committing the government to the largest land transfer in the history of Canada. Altogether, the deal will cover an area more than twice the size of Texas.
Despite the fanfare over the proposed settlement of the land claims in the Northwest Territories of some 15,000 Indians and Metis (people of mixed ancestry), the pact is far from complete.
``There are substantive negotiations remaining before a final deal is signed,'' notes John Merritt, executive director of the Canadian Arctic Resources Committee.
But if crucial details are negotiated in the next two years, as planned, these nonwhite groups will win full title to some 3,900 square miles in the Mackenzie River Valley area. They will also get surface rights on about 65,000 square miles, rights entitling them to receive half of the first $2 million in oil, gas, and mineral royalties, and 10 percent of the balance. The pact also gives these groups rights to hunt and fish over another 386,000 squares miles.
The Dene Indians and Metis are also to receive $500 million (Canadian: US$405 million) to assist economic growth. But this will be paid out over 20 years, starting in 1990.
Both the government and the native people had their own reason to sign the agreement-in-principle.
Mr. Mulroney is expected to call an election any day and can now point to progress in dealing with the troublesome issue of native claims. Two other massive land claims are pending in northern areas.
The native groups, unsure of the results of an election, wanted to tie down terms obtained in talks over the past 13 or so years.
In a brief speech, Mulroney termed the event a historic ``day of justice ... for the Dene and Metis and all Canadians.''
Some 51 issues remain outstanding between federal on native negotiators. One problem concerns the exact wording of sections of the agreement extinguishing native rights on land to which they will not have title. There also is some question as to what degree of self-government for the native groups will be included in the deal. And the native groups still face some wrangling about how to divide their overlapping land claims. Some talks began on this latter issue Tuesday between the Dene and the Metis.
``We will be seeking changes before we reach the final agreement, said William Erasmus, chief of the Dene nation.
Many whites in the Northwest Territories, who comprise nearly half of the population, welcome the progress on the land claims.
``New money coming into the economy can only help the Northwest Territories,'' commented Marion Lavigne, publisher of Up Here, a magazine dealing with Northwest Territories culture.
Petroleum and mining companies are keen to see land issues settled. Since Canada's Constitution of 1982 guarantees undefined aboriginal rights, such companies have been concerned that government-granted rights to exploit mineral concessions could be challenged in the courts.
Native groups hope that when the money starts flowing into their newly-formed corporations from the government or mineral concessions, they will be challenged to overcome problems of illiteracy, widespread alcoholism, and broken families. They were given an advance of $2 million.