The Dehcho Annual Assembly has only just begun and there are already two surprises for members: Nahanni Butte has rejoined the Dehcho First Nations and Fort Liard may have never really left.
Delegates and leaders hosted by the Łı́ı́dlı̨ı̨ Kų́ę́ First Nation in Fort Simpson made Nahanni Butte's new position official by a vote. They confirmed members of the Nahɂą Dehé Dene Band will be given a say in the upcoming election of a new grand chief.
No members from Fort Liard and the Acho Dene Koe First Nation chose to attend the 2022 assembly, and there was no formal vote as to whether to give them a say in Tuesday's election.
But legally, the assembly heard on Monday, it appears the Acho Dene Koe First Nation never fully severed ties with the Dehcho First Nations.
ADKFN stated its intent to pursue a separate land claim with the federal and N.W.T. governments in 2008.
At the time, Chuck Strahl – former federal minister of Indian and northern affairs – told the CBC the First Nation "just felt that they wanted to move ahead on their own."
But former grand chief Gerald Antoine characterized the agreement as a "divide and conquer" strategy by the Canadian government and GNWT to undermine the collective bargaining power of a unified Dehcho claim.
In Monday's meeting, Dehcho legal advisor Chris Reid asked about the complex process by which communities fully separate themselves from the Dehcho First Nations' claim. In a comment addressed to Reid, current interim Grand Chief Stanley Sanguez stated the Acho Dene Koe First Nation had never completed that separation.
"They need to formally revoke their membership before they can separate themselves," Sanguez said, adding that Boyd Clark, Acho Dene Koe's acting band manager, "is aware of that."
Whether ADKFN will choose to proceed with revoking its membership is not clear. Clark could not be reached for comment by the time of publication.
Monday's news came alongside a review of the annual budget and changes to the Dehcho First Nations' electoral code.
Future candidates applying for the position of grand chief will now need 12 nominations from qualified Dehcho First Nations members, with signatures, to be eligible.
Of all the updates, many felt the change in Nahanni Butte's status to be the most significant.
Interim Grand Chief Sanguez revealed that earlier in the spring, he visited Nahanni Butte to "hash things out," a gesture that culminated in an offer to help support the community's negotiations with Parks Canada to secure land for a protected area.
"Nahanni Butte finally got the agreement that they wanted, with the full support of the region in the park's expansion," said Sanguez. "This is a milestone for protecting Dehcho lands that we haven't seen since Edéhzhíe."
The Dehcho First Nations on Monday gave few public details about the proposed protected area.
Chief Steve Vital of the Nahɂą Dehé Dene Band was only able to share his enthusiasm.
"I'll say that we're very excited about this step – that everybody's on board with what we're trying to do," said Vital.
Elections for the Dehcho's next grand chief will be held later on Tuesday.
Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio