Three generations of a Norman Wells family are reflecting on what it means for the Dene and Metis of their community to move closer to self-government.
Margaret McDonald is a get-it-done kind of person. She has been involved with the Norman Wells Land Corporation negotiations with the federal and territorial government from their start in 2007, and even further back.
When the Sahtu Dene and Métis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement was signed in 1993, an agreement which formed a baseline for local groups to negotiate self-government, she cooked for the feast to celebrate the signing.
“I’ve never been that kind of person to sit and ponder things. If things need to be done, I do them,” she says.
Born in Tulita and raised in Norman Wells, Margaret’s role as negotiator was honoured at the January 16th signing of a self-government agreement-in-principle. She says the negotiations thus far have been a tremendous experience.
“It’s very emotional. It’s also very, very exciting because we’ve reached a milestone. We’re halfway,” she says.
“You have your highs and lows when you’re negotiating. Sometimes you’re very angry, sometimes you’re very OK with things. But through it all, we still manage to give each other a hug at the end of the session.”
Throughout the evening at the Norman Wells Legion Branch 287, it seemed as though Margaret’s daughter Lisa MacDonald never sat down. When the last guest had exited she was busy stacking chairs and carrying things out of the hall.
She paused amid the dinner clean up to point out words tattoed on the back of her neck. Pulling her scarf away she remarks ‘this never resonated so much as it did today’. The tattoo reads ‘we did not inherit the land from our ancestors, we borrowed it for our children.’
“This is a long time coming and historical. I’m happy for my children, my grandchildren. It’s going to leave a better future for them,” she says.
Norman Wells is a community where many people come and go, coming in to work either for the government or the oil industry, and Indigenous people make up only 37 per cent of the town’s population. Because of this Lisa says it has been a struggle to get this far on the road to self-government.
“I think Norman Wells, because it’s such a transient town, we have to fight extra hard for what we believe in because we don’t have a huge Aboriginal population here. But I’m very proud to say that we have leaders and people that work hard to fight for us so that my grandchildren, my children, can have a positive future.”
Lisa’s son Jaryd McDonald, 22, says it feels great to see the progress towards self-government. He has been sitting in on meetings and listening.
Jaryd is very aware that he is part of the generation who will inherit self-government once a final agreement is signed.
“Me being the next generation, my cousins and everything, we kind of have to step up to the plate. And that’s going to be the toughest part for us, stepping up. Because we sit here and we listen but so far we don’t know too much, to be honest.”
Despite his trepidations about self-government after so long being governed by the territory, he thinks the change will bring prosperity to the Dene and Metis of the area.
“I think we look forward to it, in a way. We know our home, we grew up here.”
Jaryd says he came to the gathering from the bush, adding this way of life is a teacher for him.
“If you get stuck, you break down, anything like that, it teaches you. It teaches you to survive, it teaches you to appreciate the little things in life. It teaches you to look at things a different way.”
The agreement-in-principle, while not legally binding, is the foundation for the next stage of negotiations with the federal and territorial governments.