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Dene First Nations chief negotiators say they are frustrated and outraged after learning that the Crown’s senior representative has been removed from an advanced land-claim agreement.

Arne Peltz, legal counsel for Sayisi Dene First Nation and Northlands Denesuline First Nation, said that after 20 years of negotiation, the Denesuline and Canada were about to initial a land-claim agreement last month when Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett shut down negotiations, saying at the time that more consultation was required with Indigenous peoples in Northwest Territories.

The land in question spans northern Manitoba, Nunavut and a swath of land in the southeast corner of the Northwest Territories. In addition to the Sayisi Dene and Northlands Denesuline, the other three First Nations involved in the negotiation dispute are Fond du Lac First Nation, Black Lake First Nation and Hatchet Lake First Nation, collectively called the Athabasca Denesuline.

The land has been their home for centuries, Mr. Peltz said. The Dene First Nations travelled throughout the land, got their sustenance from it, died and were buried on the land, and for people who are attached to the land, this treaty would recognize that.

Shortly after Ms. Bennett’s call for more consultation, said Mr. Peltz, negotiators learned that Mary Jean Rolando, who had been the Crown’s representative for nearly two decades, was pulled from the negotiating table entirely. Ms. Rolando did not respond to a request to comment.

“It’s damaging, possibly fatal to the successful conclusion of the Dene treaty. From our perspective, there’s no basis for this and it’s unprecedented, unnecessary and should be reversed immediately,” Mr. Peltz said.

“It’s really important in Canada that land claims be settled, it’s important for justice for Indigenous people, but it’s also important for the development of the country.”

Mr. Peltz said negotiators have asked the government to come back to the table and a court to order the government back to the table. He added they “need to have a lawyer to finish this."

A spokesperson from the minister’s office said the department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs “does not generally comment on personnel changes,” but that it is “currently taking steps to assign a new representative.”

But it’s not as simple as finding a replacement for Ms. Rolando, Mr. Peltz said, because she had the institutional memory necessary to negotiate.

“Shutting down the table, which the minister did a month ago, was seen as an act of personal betrayal,” he said, adding it “made it even worse” when they learned she had been pulled from the file completely.

In a statement on Tuesday, Benji Denechezhe, chief negotiator for Northlands Denesuline, said that removing Canada’s lawyer from the negotiation shows that Ms. Bennett and Canada “are moving away from their commitments to conclude our land claim and to reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.”

“From our perspective, Canada’s lawyer was forceful, capable and honourable in meeting her professional obligations to seek an agreement. It looks to us like sabotage of our land claim,” he said.

The statement also says that Dene chief negotiators believe the removal of Ms. Rolando shows the government’s intent to set back negotiators by “stripping the federal negotiating team of historical and institutional knowledge of the claim and the negotiations."

It says that over the course of negotiations, there was no backup federal lawyer at the table.

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