‘We lost our why.’ Chiefs debate future of Dene Nation

Norman Yakeleya, the Dene National Chief, addresses reporters at a news conference in May 2019
Norman Yakeleya, the Dene National Chief, addresses reporters at a news conference in May 2019. Sara Wicks/Cabin Radio

The Dene Nation has called for a Special Chiefs Assembly in Yellowknife this June to decipher the future of the organization.

Speaking with reporters last Thursday, Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya said: “This where we’re calling all chiefs to come to Yellowknife … to determine the survival of the Dene Nation and why we exist. What’s our cause and our purpose?

“The importance of this meeting is the determination of where the Dene Nation will go.”

Founded in 1969 – when 16 chiefs jointly opposed Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s White Paper, which in part sought to abolish treaty rights and Indian status – the Dene Nation came to prominence opposing the Mackenzie Valley pipeline in the 1970s and creating the Dene Declaration in 1975, which outlined the Dene right to nationhood.



Yet as more communities pursue agreements with the federal government on their own, some leaders say finding unity has become challenging.

“When I became the national chief in 2018, I ran on the mandate of reuniting the Dene Nation,” Yakeleya said. “We lost our cause. We lost our purpose. We lost our ‘why we are Dene.’”

Bill Erasmus, Yakeleya’s predecessor, served as national chief for nearly 30 years. He told Cabin Radio the Dene Nation no longer holds the power it once did.

“When I first started as the national chief, the Dene Nation was the sole body for the Dene that decided major issues like negotiations of our rights, land, ownership,” he explained. “It decided on those kinds of major agreements.



Bill Erasmus is pictured in a handout image provided by the Assembly of First Nations
Bill Erasmus is pictured in a handout image provided by the Assembly of First Nations.

“Now, the Dene Nation’s role is more advocacy. It’s a political body that cooperates and coordinates activities on behalf of the First Nations. The Dene Nation organization itself doesn’t have inherent authority, separate from the communities or regions.”

Dettah Chief Edward Sangris has watched the Dene Nation’s role change as communities strike out on their own.

“Those that have settled do their own lobbying,” Sangris said. “Some of the chiefs are thinking that what the Dene Nation stood for in the beginning is starting to fade in this modern era.”

New roles and negotiations

Communities pursuing their own agreements with Ottawa include the Gwich’in and Sahtu Dene settled land claims, the Salt River First Nation‘s treaty settlement agreement, and self-government for Délįnę. The Tłı̨chǫ Government has settled a joint land claim and self-government agreement.

There are currently six self-government agreements and three land claims under negotiation involving members of the Dene Nation.

However, while the Dene Nation may not have the negotiating power it once did, Erasmus argued the organization remains much-needed.

“The Dene Nation has a lot of precedence-setting that it’s involved in, and it’s based on consensus,” Erasmus said. “If one community has a problem or an issue, generally, there isn’t a push to outnumber that community or disregard that community. It’s unique in its style and its decision-making.”

Grand Chief Wilbert Kochon of the Sahtu Dene Council, who is also chief of the Behdzi Ahda First Nation in Colville Lake, said the Dene Nation allows communities to push for resolutions to common issues.



“The reason why we need the Dene Nation is they kind-of keep the North together,” he said. “With the chiefs behind them, I think it would be a really strong force to do a lot of things, to work with government, and really work on the things that Indigenous people want to give ourselves, like self-governance and self-determination.”

Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik of the Gwich’in Tribal Council said: “We all know we’re stronger working together to push some of these issues of common concern.

“Issues such as housing, education, and income support or social assistance … we do that by working in unison, together, as opposed to each trying to go out on our own.”.

Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik of the Gwich'in Tribal Council in his Inuvik office
Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in his Inuvik office. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio

Education, water as priorities

The Dene Nation held a summit in Inuvik last month at which 21 chiefs, five regional chiefs, and five representatives of the Elders’ Council discussed concerns facing their communities.

According to Yakeleya, key issues include modernization of the NWT Education Act and negotiations around the Yukon-Northwest Territories Transboundary Water Management Agreement.

Yakeleya told reporters the Dene Nation has “not been invited” by the territorial government to discuss changes being made to the Education Act and is now looking to create its own education committee.

“The chiefs’ committee is going to plan out a strategy, a process, of what ideally a Dene education system will look like,” Yakeleya said. “We will work so a young Dene person finishes school with confidence in the Dene way of life and also confidence in the 2021 world.”

The Dene Nation said it is seeking an independent legal opinion on the GNWT’s transboundary water management agreement with the Yukon. The agreement requires the jurisdictions to consult one another before taking actions that may affect a shared water source.



“We want to get a legal opinion on these transboundary agreements to see if there has been any violation to our Aboriginal rights as people and to our treaty rights, and where we’ve been excluded from these discussions as a nation of people,” Yakeleya said. “For us, it’s human rights. It’s in our blood.”

Kochon said protecting water resources in the North is one area where the Dene Nation needs to stand united.

“Everybody needs water,” he said, “and a lot of places don’t have fresh water or good water. It’s the main commonality that we can use together. If we don’t have that, I don’t think we’ll be surviving – even the animals.”

A Dene Nation water summit is planned in Fort Smith this fall.

Passing the constitution

The Dene Nation’s constitution is set to be reviewed at June’s Special Chiefs Assembly. The document, in the works for more than two decades, defines the organization’s roles and responsibilities.

“Our constitution hasn’t been looked at for a long, long time,” Yakeleya said. “We’ve come to a place where now we have a final draft to go to the Assembly. That’s where each chief, each member of the community, is going to have a say.”

Kochon looks forward to a definitive constitution joining the 1975 Dene Declaration.  

“It doesn’t really step on anybody’s toes,” he said. “It’s passed by the Nation to move forward and keep moving forward for all Dene in the North.”



Chief of Dettah Edward Sangris. Emelie Peacock/Cabin Radio

For Chief Sangris, passing the constitution is a delicate process. He said the Yellowknives Dene have to be “careful” regarding the document’s interpretation as negotiations with the federal government are ongoing.

The Yellowknives Dene First Nation has joined with the Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation and Deninu K’ue First Nation to form the Akaitcho Dene First Nations and seek a joint land, resources, and self-government agreement.

“We have to ensure that the constitution is not interfering with our everyday governance structure at the First Nations level,” Sangris said.

Nonetheless, he looks forward to working with fellow chiefs.

“Our forefathers have started the Nation, so we have to honour their creation,” he said.

“Now, things have evolved to where it is now in modern society. We have to look at it differently, how to make it work within the system that we have now.”