The Covid-19 pandemic has created another theatre of war between the Dene Nation and the Government of the Northwest Territories, or at least a return to old battlegrounds.

At the onset of the outbreak, National Chief Norman Yakeleya raised concerns about how the GNWT intended to protect the vulnerable populations in small Dene communities.

The latest conflict between the GNWT and the Dene Nation on access to booze and proper consultation remind us of the tensions associated with governance in the territory dating back to before Canada’s creation in 1867. If we’re careening toward a “new normal,” why not make a re-thinking of consensus government part of the conversation?
NNSL file photo

Soon after, the focus shifted to a heated debate on how to curtail bootlegging, seen as a particularly dangerous activity during a pandemic and the availability of liquor in general. Yakeleya noted that not only do bootleggers present a problem to public health officials concerned with controlling travel between communities, but that alcohol has had a “devastating” effect on individuals. He referred specifically to a fatal rollover near Behchoko that RCMP have gone on the record as saying alcohol was likely involved.

The GNWT earned some praise from Yakeleya when it curtailed liquor store hours to a degree and placed a daily limit on how much customers could buy each day. But the justice department found itself squarely back in his crosshairs when it announced it would allow restaurants providing food by delivery to include alcohol in the order.

That change was made earlier this month and was met with enthusiastic praise from struggling eateries. But it led to a blast from the Dene Nation.

Yakeleya said the change not only made alcohol much easier to access, it was made with no consultation. The latest slight fell in with a pattern of complaints from organizations, from education leaders to the NWT Chamber of Commerce that the GNWT and Premier Caroline Cochrane in particular were acting more like a monarchy than a responsible government with obligations to consult with and care for its constituents.

Now, there isn’t anything on paper that compels the GNWT to consult the Dene Nation, which counts as members more than 30 individual chiefs from the Beaufort Delta to Thebacha. And Yakeleya can’t reasonably expect the premier and cabinet to consult with him on every issue.

The Dene Nation is not a territorial government, billing itself as a nation within Canada representing five distinct regions of the North.

A process of devolution that would transfer more responsibilities and power to make change on par with the Deline self-government agreement or the Akaitcho land settlement to Indigenous governments inevitably means the ceding of controls by the GNWT and its substantial bureaucracy. It would probably be painful, it certainly would be complicated.

All the same, News/North has argued in the even more recent past that it may be time to re-envision the GNWT and its legislative assembly in particular. The roles of MLAs from areas outside the major population centres could be filled with the chiefs of the respective First Nation, Metis and Inuvialuit communities with seats set aside for politicians from Yellowknife, Inuvik, Hay River and Fort Smith.

Much hay has been made over the “new normal” we’re all trying to get to. The world-changing Covid-19 pandemic may provide a fresh opportunity to revisit what consensus government means to those of us living North of 60.

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