The Yellowknives Dene community of Ndilǫ will elect a chief on August 23. Incumbent Ernest Betsina is being challenged by Fred Sangris, Shirley Tsetta, and Cecilie Beaulieu.
Land claim and self-government negotiations, affordable housing, and improving education are issues top of mind for the candidates.
Cabin Radio spoke with three of the four (Beaulieu was unavailable for an interview) about their platforms, what they hope to achieve, and how they aim to help their community.
Ernest Betsina has served two terms – eight years – as Ndilǫ chief and is seeking re-election for his third.
“There’s still a lot of fight in me to continue to represent my people,” he told Cabin Radio. “I believe that I found my calling. I love serving my people, I love seeing the youth especially.”
Betsina pointed to Giant Mine as a key challenge.
Full remediation of the former mine site on the Ingraham Trail began earlier this month. The project aims to freeze 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide stored underground.
If re-elected, Betsina said keeping pressure on the federal government for compensation and an official apology would be a priority.
“That’s important: compensation for all the wrongdoings, and for all the years that they destroyed the land and the water,” he said.
“All the federal government is doing is freezing it. They’re going to freeze it for 100 years. What about the next 100 years after that? I want to try to deal with the actual arsenic itself, so I’m hoping that the technology is there … and we can prove to the federal government that the technology can neutralize the arsenic and bring it out of the ground safely.”
Furthering land claim and self-government negotiations for the Akaitcho Dene First Nations – a joint governing body that represents the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN), Deninu Kųę́ First Nation, and Łútsël K’é Dene First Nation – is another point of concern for Betsina.
He said the First Nations need to have more internal discussions about shared goals and how to approach the division of money and land among themselves, and how they want to govern.
More communication, housing, education supports
Shirley Tsetta, one of Betsina’s challengers, said many community members have expressed a desire to be more involved in the process.
“Not a lot of information is going back to the membership,” she said, “so they are very concerned that we’re not ready for ratification.
“I’m hearing a lot of people say they want to have a say in a governance structure. We should hold a workshop to collect information from the members as we’re going through clause by clause in the agreement.”
Tsetta was born and raised in Ndilǫ. She is currently studying in the Bachelor of Arts in Justice Studies program at Royal Roads University, in Victoria, and works for De Beers.
This will mark her third time running to be chief of Ndilǫ.
When asked what she hopes to achieve for the community, Tsetta was particularly passionate about housing and education.
She said she wants to find more consistent and reliable funding streams for housing projects in the community, as well as put more money toward financial supports for those pursuing higher education.
“Education is key to our success, especially when we negotiate self-government,” she argued. “We’re going to need our own people to work in government. We want qualified people, and we want people in management.
“We need to support them financially, whether it’s through scholarships, grants, helping them pay for childcare or tuition, whether it’s to help them with their books, and just to assist them so they’re not worried while they’re going to school.”
‘Maintain our language, culture, and way of life’
For Fred Sangris, revitalizing the local economy and improving local infrastructure are key.
“We really don’t have a dock, we have no parking area,” Sangris said. “If we’re going to get involved with tourism and small business … we need the land, we need the infrastructure.
“I feel that people need a good leader, a strong voice that can lead them and prosper. There’s a lot that needs to be done. Right now, the community needs a real good facelift and to get the economy going as well. This puts people back to work and helps out families.”
Sangris currently works as chief negotiator for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.
He said protecting the Bathurst caribou herd is another concern. Numbers of Bathurst caribou have dramatically declined over the past three decades. At the herd’s peak in 1986, some 472,000 animals were counted. By 2018, that number had dropped to 8,200.
More needs to be done in managing the herd, outlining best practices when it comes to their protection, and making sure those measures are upheld, Sangris argued.
“Let’s not forget the Indigenous people, like the Yellowknives Dene, managed the herd in the past,” he said. “Our ancestors … managed it, they followed it, they took care of it, and they took what they can to survive, and that’s why there are caribou still here.
“Those practices are no longer in place. It’s a colonial wall that’s put in place. A lot of work has to be done with membership, with hunters, with government … and all the other users. We’ve got to preserve this herd, otherwise they’re going to become extinct.”
The Ndilǫ election is scheduled for August 23.