The Gwichya Gwich'in Council of Tsiigehtchic, N.W.T., plans to enter self-government negotiations with the federal and territorial governments alone and no longer be part of the Gwich'in Tribal Council in the discussions.
This comes after the Gwich'in Tribal Council (GTC) temporarily suspended the Gwichya Gwich'in Council from core funding after alleging issues with the community's reporting of financial statements.
The GTC has represented land claim organizations in Inuvik, Fort McPherson, Aklavik and Tsiigehtchic in the Northwest Territories and negotiated on behalf of all four communities.
The negotiations have been ongoing since shortly after the Gwich'in signed a comprehensive land claim agreement in 1992. The GTC is pursuing a community-based regional government model.
The land claim agreement does give each community the ability to negotiate self-government on its own.
Mavis Clark, the interim president of the Gwichya Gwich'in Council, said on Tuesday the council plans to reach out to the territory and federal government soon to begin that process.
Interim president suspended
Clark said the reason Tsiigehtchic, a community in the Beaufort Delta of just over 200 residents, is embarking on negotiations alone is because they have been left out of the discussions, including two negotiation meetings this fall.
"We don't need anyone from the three communities negotiating on our behalf," she said. "Because they've never lived in Tsiigehtchic. They don't know our issues. We're the only ones that know our issues in this unique little community."
The reason Clark wasn't involved in the negotiations was because she was suspended by the GTC.
GTC Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik said this came from violations of the board of directors code of conduct, while Clark said its from being too outspoken.
Financial reporting and core funding suspension
Kyikavichik said he believes the issue really stems from how the Gwichya Gwich'in Council has been reporting its finances.
"There has been a level of tension in relation to the lack of adequate financial reporting and despite repeated offers for assistance from the GTC, the Gwichya Gwich'in Council in Tsiigehtchic has opted to try and rectify this on their own to no success for over the last three years," Kyikavichik said.
This resulted in the GTC cutting off the core funding to the Gwichya Gwich'in Council, Kyikavichik said.
"Given the serious concerns around the financial position and operational management of the council, we have suspended on an interim basis the core funding to the Gwichya Gwich'in Council," he said.
"Which I suspect is part of the reason why statements such as these are being issued," he said of the Tsiigehtchic's announcement to negotiate solo.
Kyikavichik said as a result of the financial reporting, the GTC launched a forensic audit of all four communities.
Clark said the Gwichya Gwich'in Council's financial statements are all up to date.
Lawrence Norbert, the executive director of the Gwichya Gwich'in Council, takes issue with Kyikavichik discussing the finances before the forensic audit is completed.
"I think that's an unfair comment on his part because he's the one that's calling for a forensic audit of all the four Gwich'in communities, Gwichin councils," he said.
"That's up to the auditors, for them to determine."
Norbert also said the suspension of core funding goes against the land claim agreement. He said the funding from the GTC goes to those involved in negotiations from each community, who are in part responsible for the funds.
"There's a clause that says these people are not employees of the Gwich'in Tribal Council ... so I don't know how he gets the idea that he could tell communities that he's suspending their negotiators."
An upcoming election
Another issue Kyikavichik raised was around how Tsiigehtchic's membership feels about the decision.
He said Clark is the interim president, a position she took on in 2020 after the president Julie-Ann Andre was suspended, meaning she isn't elected.
"There is a dire need for an election, convene a properly elected council," he said.
"And unfortunately we have a council ... without a level of authority and making broad directional statements like this without direction from their membership."
Clark, however, said the members she has spoken with are in support of the motion and added the Gwichya are following the election rules holding them every four years, with the next one coming in the early new year.
"We have strong people in our community, outspoken people, educated people. They can sit at the table and negotiate and they know what's best because we don't have income support, we don't have social services, we don't have a nurse, we don't have RCMP. We need those," she said.
Tsiigehtchic isn't the first Gwich'in community to embark on self-government negotiations alone.
The Nihtat Gwich'in Council in Inuvik embarked on its negotiations alone in 2018, but rejoined the GTC in 2021 at it's annual assembly.
Kyikavichik said the door remains open for Tsiigehtchic to rejoin the self-government in the future.