Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya relayed a saying from an Elder when he laid out plans Wednesday to lobby the federal government together with the NWT government.
"If you have one arrow, it's easy to break. But if you have five or 10 arrows, it's tougher to break," said Yakeleya. Forming a joint lobbying team between the Dene Nation and NWT government was one plan the chief said he laid out at breakfast with the 19 MLAs-elect on Tuesday.
"The historic breakfast tastes really good," Yakeleya said, saying the meal – a first for someone in his role so soon after an election – signified the beginning of a new relationship.
"The status quo is no longer acceptable, as we know from the last assembly," Yakeleya told reporters at a news conference called by the Dene Nation the day after that meeting.
He described the relationship between the Dene Nation and the territorial government as "rocky" and "marginal," adding his organization – created in 1969 as the Indian Brotherhood, in response to federal government plans to abolish the Indian Act and assimilate Indigenous people under the state – was "often an afterthought of the government."
Yakeleya did give some credit to the last NWT government for support such as offering to help people fill out applications for federal day school compensation.
He now wants to jointly lobby Ottawa while prioritizing the settling of land claims and advancing self-government agreements.
Key to any lobbying would be cash for infrastructure to alleviate the high cost of living, Yakeleya said. Citing former prime minister John Diefenbaker's "roads to resources" program, Yakeleya said the Mackenzie Valley Highway project has received $100 million in federal funding but more is needed to bring the highway from Wrigley all the way to Inuvik.
Other infrastructure changes sought by the Dene Nation include lengthening and widening runways in communities to allow for larger loads, while possibly using the territory's barging company to supply bulk foods to communities along the Mackenzie River.
Even such a "crazy idea" as creating a railroad system in the territory should be considered, Yakeleya said.
All but three MLAs (who were absent due to weather) gathered for what Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said was the beginning of a new relationship with the GNWT. Photo: Dene Nation
Yakeleya said the Northwest Territories currently doesn't possess a strong lobbying presence in Ottawa. He compared the organization which represents the country's Inuit population, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and its Ottawa presence of more than 350 people, to the NWT's one.
'Decentralizing' the GNWT
Changing the Dene Nation's relationship with the NWT would also mean changing the way the government looks, Yakeleya told reporters. He wants to bring decision-making power back to the regions and communities, essentially flipping what has become a "powerful centralized government."
"We have seen these [regional decision-making] powers being deleted, taken out of the regions and brought back into Yellowknife ... and that's not acceptable," he said, referring to boards like those of the NWT Power Corporation and health agencies.
That push for decentralization comes at a time when the Dene Nation is also asking itself what role it should play in the future.
With self-government either established or being negotiated in the Gwich'in, Sahtu, Dehcho, Tłı̨chǫ, and Akaitcho regions, the Dene Nation's initial mandate – to reach a comprehensive land claim – is being fulfilled by each of these governments.
Next year, the Dene Nation turns 50. Yakeleya acknowledged questions like whether the organization has fulfilled its mandate, and if there is a need for it, are being asked.
Feedback from the MLAs-elect on Tuesday was positive, Yakeleya said. He stated MLAs will now meet Indigenous leaders from across the territory on October 17.