Dene National Chief interview: Norman Yakeleya

·9 min read

Incumbent Norman Yakeleya is seeking re-election as Dene National Chief. Polls open on Wednesday and close on December 9 as voting takes place online for the first time.

Gerald Antoine, formerly Chief of the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation, is the only other candidate. Yakeleya has held the position of Dene National Chief since 2018, where he defeated two other candidates for the role.

Cabin Radio interviewed both candidates. Read Gerald Antoine's interview here.

You can hear a segment of Yakeleya’s interview on the Cabin Radio Lunchtime News podcast for November 29, 2021.

Below, read a full transcript of the interview.

This interview was recorded on Thursday, November 25, 2021. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sarah Sibley: What do you plan to bring to the Dene people if they choose you?

Norman Yakeleya: What I plan to do is bring to the Dene a new constitution. The unity of many heartbeats and one Dene drum to bring hope, and to bring the Dene people together on a united front on common issues.

That is the key. We are stronger when we are together. To bring respect to the Dene jurisdictions of treaties and the modern treaty, and to speak with a united voice on common issues of economics, the environment, social wellbeing, and the political unity of a nation among all nations.

Where do you plan to find the money to complete the work you want to do?

By establishing a strong relationship with the federal government, which I have done over the past three years.

Ensuring that the federal government continues to push the envelope directly to the communities, and to honour the implementation of their land claim self-government agreements, and honour the treaty obligations to help education and everything that we agreed in our treaties, and to support the land claims and self-government agreements.

To work with the federal government so that funding goes directly to the communities for housing, education, justice.

We need to start a new relationship with them, so the trilateral negotiations need to happen to no longer fund the territorial government. These funds now need to be going to the First Nation communities – we have to work out a new arrangement with the federal government.

You've spent your term trying to expand the Dene Nation's influence in areas like education and health. What real change do you think the Dene Nation has led in those areas?

The territorial government has invited the Dene Nation, for example, to look at the education curriculum. We need to continue to work as to what’s being taught in our communities on many fronts.

The Dene Nation has done an education summit last year and we have a Dene Nation education strategy. This is a long time overdue, and the Dene Nation’s strategy is going to provide us with means and ways of assuming the responsibility of educating our young people in the Dene way.

It means education in the classroom but also it means traditional education on the land, and so that’s a very big challenge that we are embarking on.

And that’s what I continue to do is to now follow the strategy that the Dene people participated in, and their recommendations for the national office to implement.

Do you envisage the Dene Nation as a level of government, or as a group that helps other governments to succeed?

I envision the Dene Nation as a nation of governments. Each community has their own way of governing themselves. The Dene Nation plays a strong advocacy role in terms of supporting each of our First Nations communities. As you know, that’s the ultimate role of the Dene Nation.

We know the Tłı̨chǫ have their own government with their own jurisdiction, lawmaking authority, everything. Same with Délı̨nę self-government.

We know that there are treaty land claim settlements in the Northwest Territories. We know that two regions are still negotiating their own destiny. And that’s the beautiful approach they want to take: How do we support each other in these times of our lives, and how do we support each other's aspirations and self-determination?

We need to be together because we have outside forces such as the federal government and the territorial government that are working within their own system.

The Dene, now, are planting their foot on our land and speaking as a nation on our own values and principles, on how we see life to be, and to honour our treaties, our ancestors, and our own way of thinking as to how we want to live in today’s world.

The Dene Nation has launched its new housing strategy – what work do you realistically see being done if you’re elected again?

We will continue working with the federal government and continue working with the NWT Housing Corporation.

More so, I see the communities coming together and looking at the whole aspect of housing and what needs to get done, and uniting us on a Dene Nation housing strategy that is very unique – that fits each community and what it means to bring housing to each community through the training of our young people for employment, skill building, capacity building, designing their own housing that fits the communities.

We will implement our housing advocacy office so that we support the regions, the communities, in ensuring that housing funding for the Dene goes directly to the communities and doesn’t always go to the Government of the Northwest Territories.

The federal government clearly has an obligation for housing and for the region and we want to continue to push that message to the federal government – and it is happening.

We are seeing some movement. Not as quick as we would like them to be. However, it is moving and that’s exciting. I want to continue to ensure that our communities will get direct support from the federal government. The territorial government is also in the process of working with them by giving the Dene Nation support so we can develop our own housing strategy.

Things are working. However, it’s at a snail’s pace. But we’ve got movement and that’s the big thing.

If you were designing the Dene Nation from scratch, what would you change about your organization?

If I were to design it? That’s a really good question. I really want to look at the constitution. That’s the foundation, having a clear constitution to build the vision of what the people see as the Dene Nation.

The Dene Nation is very unique and very powerful. It's to have a strong constitution where there’s safety, cooperation amongst ourselves, as each nation has their own vision of their own destinies.

But more importantly, where do we need to all come together to support our own land and water? Where do we need to come together and deal with the outside threats that threaten the Dene Nation? We have treaties as a foundation. We have land claims, the modern treaties that each region has determined as the path they have chosen.

We have two regions yet to determine their own destiny, and the Dene Nation is there to support those two regions that are still to determine their own destinies.

And for the Dene people, we come from the land and the water and the air, and to bring those values and the teachings, the principles of our Elders – of who we are as Dene.

That would mean we want to strongly support our communities to go on the land and start educating our young people through our Elders and our families, and start coming together as Dene. So that our young people can survive in today’s world with the teachings, the values and principles of who we are as people.

Where do you think you’ve made the biggest difference as leader of the Dene Nation?

That, for me, is to connect with our chiefs and support them in their capacity in the communities and their leadership. I also recognize our constitution was so outdated that we spent three years with the constitution reform.

At the same time, building a relationship with the federal ministers and even the Prime Minister and working with the territorial government and other Indigenous leaders.

The Dene have always advocated, ever since I became National Chief, that we need a council table of northern leaders – we need to sit together as Dene, Inuvialuit, the Métis, and the territorial government and come to the table to talk on common issues such as climate change, economics, social issues.

We have always strongly advocated for a council of northern leaders and now we are starting to see, in many forms, the healing of our people from the residential schools. The Dene started a wellness camp at the request of the territorial government.

The Dene Nation has embarked on justice and education. As a matter of fact, we have done close to 46 new projects with the Dene.

But more importantly, we have reassessed ourselves and we are asking the important questions and that’s through the constitution. What’s the purpose of the Dene in 2021, what’s our role? Because our regional governments have been established, they have powerful roles. Other communities need it to seek support in health, in education. So, it’s very complicated but powerful that they come together in regard to: how do we work together now?

So that constitution is a key piece of our work.

I’m very proud that we have responded to the recent threats in May in Jean Marie and Fort Simpson, and other communities in regard to helping our people. There are gaps within the system the Dene have filled and I’m very proud of that.

We’ve responded to Covid, we’ve responded to the flood situations and other situations. You’ve just got to do what you have to do, which is right. Sometimes we've got to do some things we’re not aware of. The staff at the Dene Nation have done an awesome job, I’m really proud of them for stepping up and responding to the needs of our communities. They did an awesome job and that’s something I’m really proud of.

The last one is the work to do with the residential schools. In June, we saw a huge rally of people in Yellowknife to support the families and survivors of residential schools, federal day schools, the Indian hospitals, these groups.

We have good support out there and now it’s about us coming together to talk about what’s next to do for the Dene Nation and what role will it play in the rights of our people and our communities. To band together when we talk to the federal government and the territorial government and put our position on the board.

Sarah Sibley, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio

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