Election year at the Dehcho Annual Assembly places the focus on the search for a new grand chief, but the assembly is also about coming together and celebrating.
The event began with prayers and a fire-feeding hosted by Mary Jane and Gilbert Cazon. The ceremony, which has an intricate web of meaning, is best described in their own words.
“Everything we do is in the way of love,” is how Gilbert Cazon sums it up. “For our people and for our culture, and for the ones that have passed. It’s all an act of love. And hope, hope for our children, too, to understand what we’re doing and to continue those ways.”
The ceremony opened an annual gathering of the 10 communities that make up the Dehcho First Nations.
Cazon and Berna Matto provided live interpretation in Dene Zhatié to Elders throughout the day as the assembly began at Fort Simpson’s rec centre.
“All you’re doing is passing on information,” said Matto, who lost her connection to the language for many years but relearned it in a six-month course.
“You don’t go word for word. You stick to the point. The important thing is just getting the information to the Elders.
“Many of them speak English but this is easier for them, and keeping our language alive is very important.”
Dene Zhatié was Cazon’s first language. She was a teacher for many years until she was asked to work as a federal interpreter for people offering testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
“It was heavy, heavy work,” she said. “I remember there were ambulances outside because Elders became ill as they told their stories. Some of them passed out. But I fell in love with interpreting.”
Asked if the work at an assembly spanning several days – and many speeches – is exhausting, Cazon said with a smile: “It doesn’t happen all at once but, by the end of the week, you’re tired.”
Jim Antoine, one of three candidates for grand chief, focused on a message of unity and transparency, emphasizing his willingness to listen and learn from communities across the Dehcho alongside the need for urgent work to settle land claims and more federal funding for issues like childcare and housing.
“Housing is a basic need, like food and water,” Antoine told delegates. “With the high price of lumber, it’s become a big challenge. We need to get better at tapping into federal funding opportunities.”
“I love the drum dances and the gathering of people,” said Jonathan Antoine, tourism and communications coordinator for the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation. “The Dene drum is what keeps the Dene together.”
Ehdaa, the place where delegates and Fort Simpson residents met on Monday evening, is a centuries-old gathering place for the Dene people.
On Tuesday, each community around the circle offered a question or comment to the candidates. Many, including Antoine, were impressed by youth delegate Maverick Simba-Canadien’s words.
Tim Lennie, another candidate for grand chief, told delegates: “No matter what happens, no matter who becomes grand chief, I love this community and I will continue to contribute.
“You will still see me at drum dances, you will see me at the next assembly, you will see me at the table.”
News that a forest fire had crossed the highway near their home community reached Wrigley’s delegates as the first round of election results came through.
“We’ve been calling people back home,” said Rose Moses. “We’re just hoping we’ll be able to get through there tomorrow.”
Meanwhile, representatives from the Dehcho’s Indigenous Skills and Employment Training program were available to help attendees find opportunities and scholarships for which they might be eligible.
“The Dehcho is back to normal,” declared Herb Norwegian shortly after his victory in the election for grand chief, slightly breathless after dashing around the room to shake everyone’s hand.
“This means so much to me. I’ve been rejected a few times, I was doubtful, but I’m thankful to those who supported me. Let’s get back to work.”