Norman Yakeleya is the new Dene National Chief.

Yakeleya defeated rivals Eileen Marlowe and Richard Edjericon in an election on Wednesday at the Dene National Assembly held inside Hay River’s arena.

Yakeleya promoted resistance and assertion of self-government to delegates, urging them: “The government has done enough. They continue to keep the Dene apart. They’re shaking now. This is a powerful assembly here.”

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He earned 96 votes to second-placed Marlowe’s 75, with Edjericon receiving 61.

Yakeleya, 59 years old, replaces Bill Erasmus – five years his senior – who steps down as chief more than three decades after first assuming the role.

Erasmus was elected to the position in 1987. He had since held the job for all but one term, 2003-2006.

Yakeleya is a former Sahtu negotiator who served as both chief and councillor in his home community of Tulita. He held office as MLA for the Sahtu from 2003 to 2015.

“It’s a humbling experience to go through,” said Yakeleya following his victory. “It is a privilege to be a servant of the Dene people.

“The Dene Nation won tonight. You won.

“We will change the world. The Dene will be the ones to change the world. We can do it.”

Founded as the Indian Brotherhood in 1969, the Dene Nation exists to advocate for and represent the interests of five regions within the Northwest Territories alongside Dene people based elsewhere.

New mandate

The result was announced shortly after 8:30pm, a number of hours later than planned, as an extended question-and-answer session consumed most of the afternoon’s proceedings.

The three candidates set out at length their visions of the Dene Nation’s future, with the organization’s mandate and purpose a topic of considerable discussion among delegates.

Fort Resolution’s Edjericon, a chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation from 1999 to 2003, said he wanted to think “seven generations down” and protect the rights to be inherited by Dene descendants.

“We’re the boss of our own land. Nobody can tell us what to do,” he told delegates, emphasizing he understood the pressures on various chiefs.

The territorial government is “acting like the boss,” warned Edjericon, who ran unsuccessfully against Tom Beaulieu for the position of Tu Nedhé-Wiilideh MLA in 2015. “We can’t allow them to tell us what we do in our homeland.

“The stronger we are, government will be afraid of us. Industry will be afraid of us.”

Edjericon suggested creating a new mandate for the Dene Nation, including implementation of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and a new economic development plan.

Attention to detail

Marlowe, who did minimal campaigning in favour of studying for her master’s degree in communication management, said the Dene Nation “had no organization” in its present form when addressing concerns brought forward.

Using the analogy of tearing apart a pair of moccasins several times before repairing them, Marlowe – from Łutselk’e – said the Dene Nation had to “pay attention to detail [and] do it right” – placing communications at the centre of her pitch.

She advocated a more energized approach to connecting with Dene youth, alongside a broader communications strategy to better unite the organization’s regions.

“In an ideal world, each of the chiefs would have a strategic advisor,” Marlowe said, calling for a collective conversation on how the Dene Nation moves forward.

Regarding the territorial government, she said: “I’m a firm believer there need to be some major improvements on how they approach us and what the definition of consultation is.”

‘Show up’

Yakeleya, last to address delegates, urged the audience: “We’ve got to tell Ottawa ‘enough’.”

As a central plank of his manifesto, Yakeleya said the Dene Nation should urge funding bodies – ranging from the Assembly of First Nations to the federal government – to invest money directly into Indigenous communities and not the territorial government.

Yakeleya proposed dismantling Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada while creating councils of Elders, women, and families for each region, telling delegates: “Life offers the Dene an opportunity.

“Life shows up. We, as the Dene, need to show up, and say yes, we want life. We could be a nation, and we are a nation.”

More than 350 delegates were eligible to vote in the election, spanning the Gwich’in, Sahtu, Tłı̨chǫ, Dehcho, and Akaitcho regions, alongside around 100 independent voters. Of those delegates, 232 cast votes on the day.

With files from Priscilla Hwang and the gracious provision of a live stream by CBC North.