Optimistic and hopeful is the atmosphere Chief Norman Yakeleya used to describe the relationship between the Dene First Nation and the NWT Legislative Assembly following a historic breakfast between the two groups.
All elected MLAs accepted the invitation to the Oct. 8 meal in Yellowknife, however Inuvik Boot Lake's Diane Thom, Inuvik Twin Lake's Lesa Semmler and Mackenzie Delta's Frederick Blake Jr. were unable to attend due to poor weather conditions.
"The Dene nation extended their hands," Yakeleya said during a press conference at the Dene Nation's Yellowknife office. "During the meal, we talked about re-establishing our relationship with the territorial government. Let's rebuild our working relationship. Let's see where we could pull together and speak with one voice when we go to Ottawa on the many needs of the Northern people.
"This is the first time in history the Dene Nation executive have sat down with MLAs from the Northwest Territories."
During the meeting the Dene laid out five priorities they want to pursue with the new assembly.
They are already working on the first one – better communication between the two governments. The second priority, moving more decisions back from Yellowknife to the communities they affect, may take a bit longer.
"We have seen decision making powers being taken out of the regions and brought to Yellowknife. That's not acceptable," he said. "All roads from the regions and communities lead to Yellowknife, where there is evidence that a powerful centralized government was being built up. So we say bring consensus back to the people.
"Our people in our small communities need possibilities. They need work and they need to feel they're part of the government."
As an example, he suggested traditional food for Dene patients who say staying in hospitals, noting the familiarity would help with their recovery.
Third on his list is settling the outstanding land claims and finalizing self governance. Yakeleya said settling the outstanding agreements would go a long way to ensuring both economic and political certainty.
Fourth, Yakeleya said the nation would appreciate having a voice in drafting legislation.
"We need to have both hands on the pen," he said, likening the nation's relationship with the government to a marriage. "We know there are going to be tough times but we have to know why we want to work together."
Lastly, he said he asked the MLAs to prioritize bringing down the cost of living.
"We have world class talent up here that is untapped," he said. "If government can put a man on the moon, why can't we build the North? It just takes the political will."
He said feedback from MLAs was positive and most of the ideas brought up were high on their priorities already.
Once the dust settles and a premier and cabinet are selected, Yakeleya said the plan was to have a larger meeting between the government and all the peoples of the North.
"We know we're a small part of their plan, but for us a historical breakfast tastes really good," he said. "There is hope."
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