The Dene Nation will be hosting a Special General Assembly in Yellowknife this August, where it plans to present a final draft of its updated constitution for ratification.
National Chief Norman Yakeleya told reporters last week that he was “calling on Dene Nation communities to come and sit as a family” from August 3 to 5.
The Dene Nation’s constitution has been in the works for over four decades but has yet to receive official ratification.
Yakeleya referred to the document as “way outdated.”
“It did not reflect today’s realities of the new land claim regions,” he said. “It did not recognize the self-governing jurisdictions of the Tłı̨chǫ, the community of Délı̨nę, and did not reflect what was happening in the Dehcho and Akaitcho. We were operating on real old policies and bylaws that just didn’t make sense.”
He continued: “Our constitution is more than a mere legal framework, bylaws, corporations. It’s really the constitution of the Dene in a cultural sense, in a spiritual sense, coming back to who we are – as a nation of people – and how we’re going to work together for the future.”
‘Point of our survival as people’
According to Yakeleya, the constitution will lay out in concrete detail what role the Nation will play as communities pursue land claims, self-government agreements, and other negotiations with the federal government.
It will also clarify issues such as membership for those outside of Denendeh, regulations around leadership, and where the youth, Elders’, and women’s councils fit into the Nation’s larger picture.
“How do we bring our voices together to give to the Dene Nation, to speak for all the nations in the North?” Yakeleya asked. “More importantly … what’s the common thread that keeps us together, so we support each other?”
Earlier this year, Yakeleya – alongside several other Dene chiefs in the territory – cited concerns with finding unity in recent years as communities strike out on their own.
Yakeleya’s predecessor Bill Erasmus told Cabin Radio the Dene Nation no longer holds the power it did before. Once the sole body for the Dene in negotiations around land, rights, and ownership, he said, it’s taken more of an advocacy position in the 21st century.
“It’s a political body that cooperates and coordinates activities on behalf of the First Nations,” Erasmus explained at the time. “The Dene Nation organization itself doesn’t have inherent authority, separate from the communities or regions.”
For Yakeleya, August’s assembly presents a chance to re-discover the Nation’s purpose and importance.
“Since becoming the National Chief, my mandate was to unite the Dene,” he said. “Little did I know how far we have grown apart as Dene, and how the tactics of divide and conquer are alive and well in the North, in Ottawa, and in Yellowknife with the Legislative Assembly.
“The foundation of the Dene Nation is at stake here, and we are going to meet to determine the future of the Dene Nation in August. Once we determine, then we will know, as we stand together, how to deal with the federal government; how to deal with the churches; and how to deal with the Government of the Northwest Territories.
“We need to come together first as a family.”
Examining residential school sites
June has been a busy month for the Dene Nation.
It organized and hosted a memorial walk in Yellowknife for the 215 children found at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School Site in BC, bringing hundreds of NWT residents to the streets to honour them.
Yakeleya himself has publicly called on churches in Canada to acknowledge the atrocities they committed and demanded both religious institutions do more to advance reconciliation.
In a public statement, he lamented the slow pace of parliament in passing Bill C-5 – which officially marks September 30 as the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and received Royal Assent on June 5 – referring to it as “a band-aid solution” to the Kamloops discovery.
“Let me be clear that these public national acknowledgements do matter,” Yakeleya said. “But let us not forget that immediate action also matters. Our Elders have told us where we can find our lost children. We need to bring them home for their families and their spirits.”
The Dene Nation is now looking at putting together a plan to examine former residential school sites in the NWT for similar unmarked graves.
Premier Caroline Cochrane committed to supporting Indigenous communities in the territory who wish to pursue such work.
On Facebook, MLA for Great Slave Lake Katrina Nokleby shared she had “been in touch” with NWT research units that used Ground-Penetrating Radar (GPR) to examine ice about repurposing the technology to search sites.
Yakeleya said: “We will ask the churches for the records. We will identify the communities.
“There may be families that are waiting right now for their children to come home, and we will be meeting with the Elders to determine, should we find unmarked graves at these residential school sites, what is the cultural protocol.”