Dene Nation leads pilot program to address racism in policing

Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya speaks during a memorial ceremony for the 215 children found in Kamloops. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio

A new pilot program led by the Dene Nation is taking aim at systemic racism against Indigenous people within policing.

The Nation announced the program in a press release on National Indigenous Peoples Day this Monday.

Developed by an Edmonton-based consulting firm called Unstoppable Conversations, the program is set to start in July and will take place over two years.

The first phase will bring 10 Indigenous leaders from the NWT and 10 RCMP employees together for a series of workshops. Participants will engage in discussions, where they will be “sharing and listening to each other’s perspectives, and discovering blind spots and assumptions about the situation, each other, and even themselves that get in the way of moving forward together,” according to the Dene Nation.



Phase two will involve the creation of “community initiatives,” which will be formed by communities themselves. It was not immediately clear what these initiatives may entail.

“For far too long, our people have been held down by the unequal application of the Canadian justice system, which has contributed to an ongoing cycle of intergenerational pain and trauma,” Dene National Chief Norman Yakeleya stated in Monday’s press release.

“Indigenous peoples are ready to move beyond platitudes that denounce racism and move towards tangible, clear and implementable action that transforms policing and justice systems.”

Chief superintendent Jamie Zettler, commanding officer of the NWT RCMP, added: “I believe this is the next step in our evolution in the Northwest Territories and look forward to the ongoing work with the Dene Nation,” he said.



The Dene Nation will be sending out invitations to Dene communities who can apply for the opportunity to participate. Though only 10 Indigenous leaders will be selected for the workshops, everyone will have the chance to get involved in the community initiatives.

The Nation said it is looking to select a diverse collective of participants so a number of groups – including Elders, youth, and women – are all represented.

“This is an opportunity to bring to life the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action while demonstrating a new way forward in Canada for policing and justice that reflects unity between Indigenous and Canadian leadership,” Yakeleya continued. “However, it is crucial that this is an Indigenous-led process.

“The only way we can make effective, long-lasting change is to employ the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us;’ understanding lived experiences must be a key part of breaking down the walls of colonial justice systems.”

Police violence in the North

Though a reality experienced by Black, Indigenous, and other communities of colour in Canada for centuries, systemic racism within policing has come under heavier scrutiny in the last year.

Black Lives Matter protests erupted internationally following the death of George Floyd at the hands Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who has since been convicted of second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter.

Demonstrations were held in Yellowknife and Fort Smith last June. Calls for “defunding the police” grew across Canada.

Elsewhere in the territory, the GNWT is getting ready to pilot a Community Safety Officer (CSO) program, which was listed in the 2021-22 Northwest Territories budget.



The program relies on safety officers – often hired from the community they are serving – to patrol streets and provide support or assistance where needed. They don’t carry weapons, don’t make arrests, and are trained to handle situations involving people living with mental health issues, addictions, or intergenerational trauma.

A similar program run by the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Whitehorse, first launched in 2017, has received national and international attention as a solution to the legacies of colonialism within modern policing.  

On Tuesday, spokesperson for the NWT Department of Justice Ngan Trinh told Cabin Radio the hiring process for CSO program is set to begin this summer, with rollout taking place until April 2022.

An official announcement is expected from the territorial government when details are finalized.