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Focus on help, Dene Nation says as NWT politicians meet

Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation Chief Kele Antoine, left, and Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine at a press conference on Friday, August 25.
Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation Chief Kele Antoine, left, and Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine at a press conference on August 25, 2023.

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The NWT’s Legislative Assembly meets in Inuvik on Monday to consider delaying the territorial election and examine emergency spending on wildfires.

The unusual one-off sitting is required because the election, currently scheduled for October 3, cannot be delayed without legislation being passed.

Chief electoral officer Stephen Dunbar has recommended the election be pushed back, with multiple communities now under weeks-long evacuation orders and the election period theoretically supposed to start next week.

Yellowknife, the regular home of the Legislative Assembly, cannot be used as a venue as the city is under an evacuation order.

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The other item on Monday’s agenda is the cost of this extreme wildfire season, which is easily the most disruptive in the territory’s history.

“Our annual budget for wildfire suppression is less than $20 million,” finance minister Caroline Wawzonek wrote on Sunday.

“This year, we anticipate hitting $100 million. Hopefully not more.”

Speaking from Fort Simpson on Friday afternoon, Dene National Chief Gerald Antoine called on the territory’s MLAs to deal only with wildfire evacuation supports and delaying the territorial election for the foreseeable future – and put aside any other outstanding business.

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Speaker of the House Frederick Blake Jr has said MLAs will have to meet again in September for the final week’s sitting, which was supposed to occur in August but has been postponed.

“There’s great anxiety and also concerns on the minds of our people and their families who have been impacted,” said Chief Antoine.

“The safety and care of these people has to be all of our top priority … and that should be the priority that they deal with.

“There’s also a speculation that the 19th Assembly will be recalled to meet in late September and conclude other outstanding businesses … to deal with other matters, for me, is very selfish.”

Antoine called on the GNWT to put NWT families at the centre of their decision-making and meet their needs. He also asked the federal government to honour legal obligations under Treaty 8 and Treaty 11 to provide sufficient funds to First Nations.

“The chiefs are responsible for their territories and peoples and know best how to allocate funding. The Crown is legally obligated to the Dene, and responsible to provide this financing,” he said.

Scared, frustrated

Chief Kele Antoine of Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation called for better policies to help people in times of disaster and evacuation, saying a more streamlined approach is needed to help people navigate these situations, feel safe, and ensure they have shelter.

“Our families have been disrupted. Our families are in need. They’re spread all over western Canada. They’re scared. They’re frustrated. They don’t know what’s happening next. We need to do better,’ the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ chief said.

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Dene National Chief Antoine added families have been uprooted, displaced and relocated, and taken away from their land, to which they have a sacred relationship and a responsibility.

“That has also been our experience with the residential school, and also colonization,” he said, noting the Legislative Assembly and the Dene have not had a good relationship.

Despite this, he said, leaders need to work together. He said other levels of government working with the Dene Nation as equals on the emergency response would be an act of reconciliation.

“That way, our community family is safe, they’re protected, and we need to make sure we have all the basic supports for the well-being of the community,” Antoine said, urging a focus on accommodation, food, basic necessities and transportation.

“We need to find out who is providing these things, and we need to look at how we could be able to better coordinate ourselves.”