At the University of Manitoba and on the ground in the Canadian bush, an investigation is underway into the impacts of a UN declaration and the nation’s constitution on the rights and freedoms of its Indigenous inhabitants



Dr Peter Kulchyski introduces us to his academic and grassroots level work with one of Canada’s Indigenous populations and discusses their struggle to retain their Aboriginal rights

You are the Graduate Programme Coordinator of the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba and Co-Director of the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas. How have your interests lead you to these positions?

My interest in Indigenous politics goes back to when, as a teen, I was a non-Native who attended a state-run residential school. Most of the students were Indigenous, and it gave me a strong sense that Indigenous people faced injustice. I studied politics with a plan to write a thesis on Indigenous politics from a critical theory perspective, which I then did. This led me to scholarly work in Native Studies when I graduated.

Since I had good administrative skills, I took on a variety of administrative and leadership roles. I also developed an interest in continental philosophy and critical theory as an undergraduate, and my involvement in the Hemispheric Institute for Performance and Politics fed – and still feeds – that interest. I therefore became a Canadian board member and eventually found funding for a Canadian sub-group.

A major focus of your work centres on the Begade Shuhtagotine Aboriginal population. Briefly, what characterises this population, and what is their current status in Canada?

I have been working with Begade Shuhtagotine for about 15 years. They are a very small group, but also quite distinct in their culture, dialect, land base and land use. They were included in a modern treaty that purports to erase their Aboriginal title. They objected to being included. I think their current situation sheds light on problems of modern treaty policy, self-government policy and the overall Canadian response to claims of Aboriginal rights.

Inset_ImageWhat drew you to this population, and what types of activities are you engaged in with them?

I was drawn to work with them through involvement with one charismatic elder, Paul Wright. He asked for help at a community gathering I attended while I was working on a book I published a few years back called Like the Sound of a Drum: Aboriginal Cultural Politics in Denendeh and Nunavut. He was a powerful speaker and a highly respected elder. I came to consider it a privilege to work with and learn from him. When he passed away, I carried on our work with the next generation of Begade Shuhtagotine leaders.

I have been instrumental in helping them return to their lands in the summer seasons, in order for me to document their life ways and specific elements of their culture. I am hoping my forthcoming book on their struggle will serve three purposes. First, I want it to document the injustice they face for potential future legal action. Second, I want to illustrate the hypocrisies and problems with current federal land surrender policies. Finally, I want to generate political support to assist them in their current struggle.

Can you explain what is meant by the title of your previous work, Aboriginal Rights are not Human Rights, and the argument that is central to it? 

It’s a point I return to in a concluding section of my latest book, Report of an Inquiry into an Injustice: Begade Shuhtagotine and the Sahtu Treaty. In straightforward terms, human rights belong to everyone, including Indigenous peoples. Aboriginal rights only belong to Indigenous people.

Human rights – derived from enlightenment thinking and broad urban-based social action in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries – can actually interfere with Indigenous rights (if we insist on equality, it will not allow for meaningful cultural difference). Aboriginal or Indigenous rights are related to rural-based customary rights once found in Europe and other parts of the world, and are grounded in culturally specific practices rather than a universal sense of the ‘human’.

Featured_Image2What political and legal challenges are the Begade Shuhtagotine people currently facing? 

First, they are not recognised as a band, First Nation, or distinct group by the State. Therefore, they have no funding, no organisational capacity and a small voice. Second, the State maintains that they surrendered their land rights through the Sahtu Treaty, even though they signed a petition to keep them out of the claim. Hence, they do not have decision-making power or influence over their own traditional territory.

How are these challenges impacting their lives?

Their current leaders, David and Theresa Etchinelle, have not signed the Sahtu Treaty as individuals. They are therefore excluded from job and funding opportunities and, to some extent, are blacklisted in the region. Accessing their land is an arduous and expensive venture, and they receive little support from anyone that allows this. There are also political tensions they face with community and regional leaders.

In the last 20-30 years in Canada, scientists and researchers have started to work more closely with Indigenous peoples, studying their histories and how their lives have changed over the millennia. What impact are you hoping your research with the Begade Shuhtagotine will offer both to this Aboriginal community and the wider Canadian population?

My book is multifaceted with many goals. I hope to illustrate the policy problems and continuing injustices these people face. I also hope to educate a broad stratum of people about the fact that there are still bush people and hunting cultures that exist and have the possibility of thriving in the mid and far north of Canada. Though their numbers are small – microscopic in a global sense – their value to meaningful cultural diversity and to the world as a whole becomes increasingly important as humanity faces a series of global threats.

Further, in their element, on the land, they have the possibility of ‘good lives’: eating fresh meat, drinking fresh water, being their own bosses, having a characteristic respect for mutual autonomy, maintaining an independence of character and having a deeply spiritual and ancient connection to an undeniably beautiful land.

Caribou along the Keele River (Begade)

Caribou along the Keele River (Begade)

The Begade Shuhtagotine land claims: the devil is in the detail

David Etchinelle filing an axe

David Etchinelle filing an axe

AMIDST THE RUGGED and sublime beauty of the Canada’s Northwest Territories are a diverse range of Indigenous communities. They have lived on the same land and practiced the same ceremonies and rituals of daily life in balance with their environment for countless generations. Life in the bush goes on, but it does so on a land that’s rich with natural resources and, in the eyes of the state, is ripe for oil, gas and mineral exploration.

Dr Peter Kulchyski has spent many years working with, and living amongst, various Canadian Aboriginal communities. He is dedicated to documenting, learning from, and helping to sustain their ways of life in the Canadian bush. As a Professor at the University of Manitoba’s Department of Native Studies and Co-Director of the Canadian Consortium on Performance and Politics in the Americas, Kulchyski has written extensively in support of Indigenous peoples and their rights in an ongoing struggle to prevent them being eroded by the interests of the State.

Lately, Kulchyski’s work has centred on a community whose land lies in the easterly shadows of the Mackenzie Mountains, the Begade Shuhtagotine (mountain Dene of the Keele River). The land may lie there, but they do not. The Begade Shuhtagotine are primarily based in Tulita, a hamlet within the Northwest Territory’s Sahtu region. Trouble for this small group began in the early 1990s, when a Federal land claim agreement known as the Sahtu Treaty came to the table. Although the treaty offered sizeable financial incentives to Indigenous populations, the price was the Aboriginal title to their lands – the rights of which would then be given to the State forever. This is called a ‘certainty’ policy and underlies all modern treaties: Indigenous activists call it a ‘termination’ policy.

The Begade Shuhtagotine signed a petition to exclude themselves from the treaty, without wishing to agitate those who did support the land claim agreement. But with Tulita a signatory of the Sahtu Treaty, the Canadian government has refused to recognise the group’s distinct existence and Aboriginal rights to their land, a home from which they are now legally, as well as physically, removed.


Theresa Etchinelle preparing dry meat from a freshly hunted moose

Kulchyski knows the Begade Shuhtagotine well. Having worked with them for over 15 years and taking an active part in their community life, Kulchyski is a witness to the damaging effects of policies drawn up and implemented from afar. Armed with such a comprehensive understanding of the issues, his work aims to build support for the Begade Shuhtagotine locally and nationally, while highlighting problems with the Federal land surrender policies in use today.

Although not perfect, the Canadian Constitution provides a strong legal foundation when it comes to matters of Aboriginal and treaty rights. In particular, Section 25 of the Canadian Constitution demonstrates the nation’s enlightened attitude toward the freedoms of Indigenous peoples. In his most recent publications, Kulchyski has found it necessary to call attention to Section 25 as Canada finally adopts the UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).

Only 50 years ago, there was an episode in the history of Canada’s dealing with its Indigenous peoples that illustrated the need to define Aboriginal rights as separate from, but equal to, human rights. Championing equality as its cause, the Canadian Federal Government attempted to use human rights as a means to level Aboriginal rights and effectively dismantle them. That is, to ride roughshod over the rights and freedoms that being the earliest occupant of a territory entitles them to. About 10 years later, this in part resulted in Section 25 and 35 of the Constitution. Section 35 explicitly affirms and recognises Aboriginal rights and has gained a great deal of attention, but Section 25 also deserves notice. Kulchyski explains its profound importance: “It protects the exercise of Aboriginal rights from being overridden by the exercise of human rights. It says that nothing in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms will be interpreted in a manner that takes away or limits Aboriginal rights in Canada”.

Kulchyski recognises UNDRIP as a largely positive document and was an early supporter of its adoption in Canada when the Government initially opposed the declaration for political reasons. Closer inspection of UNDRIP, however, has given Kulchyski cause for concern. Although Canada’s Supreme Court understands the necessity to differentiate between Aboriginal and human rights, the UN declaration does not appear to appreciate the nuances. “While a worthy document, UNDRIP does not establish such legal architecture and many of its supporters characterise it as an ‘extension’ of the Declaration of Human Rights,” explains Kulchyski.

The worry is that the UN is basically underlining and only protecting the human rights of Indigenous peoples. Human rights are, of course, not to be sniffed at and UNDRIP, despite its flaws, is considered a significant victory by many Indigenous groups across the world. But without the legal architecture found in the Canadian Constitution, what is there to guarantee that human rights will not again be misappropriated as a weapon against Aboriginal communities?


In their current position, the status of the Begade Shuhtagotine is one of marginalisation. They do not have decision-making powers over their own traditional lands, that are now subject to serious interest by oil exploration companies, or the funding and employment opportunities that the other signatories of the Sahtu Treaty enjoy.

In documenting their situation, Kulchyski has spent time taking part in some of the cultural practises that, for other communities at least, are protected as Aboriginal rights. For the Begade Shuhtagotine, such traditions include fishing, and hunting the caribou and mountain sheep found in their ancestral homelands east of the Mackenzie Mountains. The process of determining Aboriginal rights may be ongoing but the Canadian courts have come to an underlying definition that they constitute the customs, practices and traditions integral to a peoples’ distinctive culture. Kulchyski illustrates what Section 25 means in practical terms: “My Begade Shuhtagotine friends may hunt ducks in spring. Because of Section 25, I can’t say, ‘I should be able to hunt ducks here in spring as well, since we are all equal under the law’.”

The Constitution provides hope, but Kulchyski’s Aboriginal friends are in a bind. While they maintain their Aboriginal land titles, the State maintains they have officially been handed over. In his most recent and forthcoming publications, Kulchyski intends to bring the issues of the Begade Shuhtagotine to the attention of policy makers in Canada to highlight the failings of current Federal land surrender treaties. It is, however, up close and personal that Kulchyski believes the real differences can be made, by working with and among those whose rights are ignored, despite the existence of a variety of constitutional and legal tools. To make real changes in the circumstances of marginalised communities, Kulchyski believes they must be forged in the bush.