“Life is good. Life is waiting for you. And life will knock on your door – you just need to open it.”

With those words to the 2018 graduating class of Deninu School, newly elected Norman Yakeleya began his tenure as Dene National Chief.

Yakeleya’s first public appearance, two days after Wednesday’s= election at West Point First Nation, was an unexpected one. He had been visiting an Elder in Fort Resolution when he learned the grad ceremony was taking place that same day.

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“Make your community, your nation, your council… make it great. Do something good,” he told the teens. It was both advice for their futures and his plan for his three-year term as chief.

On Saturday, when Cabin Radio caught up with Yakeleya to talk about what happens next, he was in Hay River and heading to Fort Providence.

“I want to pay close attention to our communities and make every good effort to get into the communities and involve them in our decision-making as we go forward,” he said, hoping that will help him both stay connected to peoples’ needs and communicate what the Dene Nation is doing.

Wisdom and guidance

Yakeleya believes people are looking forward to change.

“Bill [Erasmus, Dene National Chief for most of the past three decades] has done a tremendous job. He worked for 30 years for the Nation and certainly he has carved out his path,” said Yakeleya.

“We’ll now begin our new path with our own moccasins.”

Yakeleya has said one of his first priorities is to establish an Elders’ council. How it functions will be determined by the Grand Chiefs and Elders.

“Elders I spoke to liked this concept, they thanked me for this, and I think it’s the right thing to do for the Dene Nation,” he said.

“And to practice what we’ve been talking about: raising the level of Elders into their rightful place within our culture, and use their wisdom and guidance in the many challenges that the Dene Nation is going to face over the next three years that we’re going to be leading.”

He cited housing, education, climate change, and working relationships with the territorial and federal governments as issues about which he hopes Elders will provide guidance and help him prioritize.

At a territorial and national level, Yakeleya wants to build a relationship with the other governments “based on nation to nation.”

“We want to look at the working arrangements … with the federal government on ensuring, upholding, and protecting our inherent rights, our treaty rights,” he said.

‘Three years is not much’

During the campaign, Yakeleya advocated for the territorial and federal governments to grant the Dene Nation sole authority over funding and management – but how this plan will come to fruition, now he has been elected, will take some planning.

“It will take a lot of thought to it, how we could work to ensure that the funding arrangements are in place. It’s so early in the game,” said Yakeleya.

“I need to sit down with key strategists and look at some of the things we need to do.”

Within the Dene Nation, the new Chief also wants to take a deep dive into the constitution and complete a “self-assessment of the Dene Nation to see how the Dene Nation plays a role from hereon in, in regards to the different regions.”

Yakeleya added: “Under my leadership I want to have constitutional discussions with the Grand Chiefs of the Dene Nation and look at what we need to draft or review, and bring that forward to the leadership for their discussions.

“Hopefully we’ll have something that is satisfactory to all the regions, that supports all of the regions.

“We’ve got some big issues and we need to organize and sort them out, and prioritize them,” he acknowledged.

“Three years is not much, however I want to start right away with putting our goals on the table and ensuring our staff are clear and focused as to what we want to achieve within the three-year mandate.

“Anything is possible. I’m a man of possibilities.”