Ahead of the Sept. 6 election for chief in the Yellowknives Dene First Nation community of Ndilo, Yellowknifer caught up with the three candidates Alex Beaulieu, Ernest Betsina and Shirley Tsetta. They spoke of the Ndilo housing shortage, how to engage elders and youth and how to move forward on the Akaitcho land-claim negotiations.
The interviews have been edited for brevity.
“It’s been challenging, it’s been demanding but I love it. I love to serve my members.”
Ernest Betsina is the incumbent Ndilo chief, serving from 2013 to today.
Born and raised in Ndilo, the trained journeyman worked for the government before becoming chief.
If his second run is successful, Betsina said he wants to take on a few complex, historical issues including Giant Mine, the Akaitcho land-claim negotiations and changing city boundaries.
Q: So you’ve been chief once and now you’re running again, what’s the plan?
My goal is to run for at least three terms, four if I have enough energy. So that’s 16 years – well I want to do at least 12. Four years is not long enough. It’s already been four years for me. It’s been challenging, it’s been demanding but I love it. I love to serve my members.
Q: What are some of the things you are proud of from your last four years as chief?
We are very proud that we set up an IBA (impact-benefit agreement) trust fund, to ensure that the trust fund will always grow for future generations. And we signed the De Beers Gahcho Kue IBA agreement.
Administratively, we finalized and finance and HR policy and completed the Ndilo greenhouse and garden. I can foresee each house having their own little raised bed garden, where it would feed the family for weeks instead of going to the grocery store. We’re hunters, gatherers, but we need to learn gardening too. It’s important that we sustain ourselves.
We went on a community hunt, so we re-established that. That was nice to have caribou back in our members’ homes, freezers and fridges, and fed some of the families so that was really nice.
We also hired a new Det’on Cho CEO and we signed a Giant Mine Oversight Board Agreement.
Q. How is the involvement of YKDFN with the Giant Mine process?
Well we have a say now, not like before. But just on this topic, there’s some things I want to work on when I get elected: The Giant Mine apology, the Giant Mine compensation and the Giant Mine arsenic.
The powers that be, for whatever reason, just don’t want to act on this right away. But we want to keep this issue alive because our elders want it, our members want an apology and compensation.
Q. One of your goals is to build a multipurpose complex, what will this do for Ndilo?
I believe it will bring the community spirit back, because if you build it they will come. I believe my members need a multipurpose building not only during the day, but for the evening for events. A gymnasium, a wellness centre. Like a central place for my members.
Q. You also want to see your community’s border with Yellowknife changed?
The city of Yellowknife and YKDFN boundary is one of my priorities, because right now the existing City of Yellowknife boundary line runs basically on Dettah road and we don’t want that. We want that moved over, closer to the City of Yellowknife.
Q. What are some challenges you’ve faced in your first term?
Our negotiations have not progressed as I would like them to progress. The negotiations are very, very important to me and to my members and to my elders, because our future lands with the federal government are being negotiated right now. It’s been a long time coming and it’s still coming, but I’m still hopeful the negotiations can move forward in a much more progressive state in this term.
Q. What are some other challenges your community is facing?
The youth and the elders, they seem to be forgotten. The vast majority of our members are youth. I’m hoping we can work with the youth so they can become good members, with their education, their basic needs, life skills. And with that comes the alcohol and drugs – I’m hopeful that my members will … grow up to be good members, to be good citizens of our YKDFN.
Q. You mentioned elders are being forgotten..
I’m hopeful that the elders can share their knowledge, work with chief and council, work with our staff. To share their knowledge of how it was in the old days and encourage our membership as a whole to incorporate the Dene laws.
Q. When you became chief last time, you said you wanted to restore members’ faith in the band. Do you feel that has happened?
I believe that I bring stability, because before there used to be some turmoil. But now we have two steady chiefs who ran the last term and will continue and I hope I will continue to bring stability.
“There’s no reason not to have a female chief, absolutely none … The young people, I think they’re ready for that.”
Born and raised in Ndilo, Tsetta said she has left a few times but has always returned to her home.
With a background in management studies and social work and experience serving on a number of boards, this will be Tsetta’s third time running for chief.
Surviving residential school and having a sister taken during the sixties scoop, Tsetta said many people in the community are feeling similar pain. She plans to tackle social issues in her run for chief.
Q. What are members telling you they want to see changed?
The land claim for sure, they want that to go to completion and have that finalized. That’s the biggest concern for people just because of so much development is going on in the Akaitcho region now. The second thing is cleaning up Ndilo, that’s a big concern. And the third is communications, keeping people in the loop.
Q. What do you think are the main issues facing Ndilo right now?
One of the concerns that came up in the chiefs’ forum was the drug dealers and bootleggers in the community.
There have been some tragedies down here – deaths and stabbing and suicide. Social issues with the First Nations down here is a big problem.
And I think the biggest problem would be that we’re adjacent to the city of Yellowknife and as a First Nation community it’s almost like an invasion onto our aboriginal rights and practices because there are some concerns from people who have traplines.
There’s just so many problems with alcohol in the homes, there’s incest and sexual assault and physical abuse. And all of that is going on in the home and the social problems that go with it are huge. So we need to get involved in the missing and murdered aboriginal women’s inquiry, the residential school reconciliation, those things need to be implemented in the communities.
Q. So a lot of these things are going on inside the home, how do you as chief affect those relationships?
Getting the information back to the members, because they do have a community wellness department. The staff are there, we do have counsellors in the communities and just to support the staff to access some of the funding and maybe train some of our members to be counsellors or proposal writers to access those monies. You (as chief) are not directly involved, but you are in a position to support and influence and advocate.
Q. You would be the first elected female chief of the YKDFN. What would that bring to the position?
A lot of women in the community have education, really it’s inspiring that a lot of our young people are going for their master’s degrees, their bachelor of arts degrees and they want to come home and they want to get into senior positions.
So I think it’s just a natural progression. There’s no reason not to have a female chief, absolutely none, there shouldn’t be. I think it’s just because of our traditions of having men in the chief position and I think a lot of people still believe that. But for the young people, I think they’re ready for that.
Q. What are some things you would like your members to know about your plans for the next four years?
One of the things we will need from our members is ratification (of the Akaitcho agreement). They are the ones that have to approve that agreement. So we need their involvement, their participation. We have to inform them and consult them. That’s one thing that I’m going to do, I’m going to make sure members are well informed.
Q. What groups do you plan to engage with?
I’d like to speak to the youth. When we did our door-to-door down here, the youth did tell me there’s nothing really to do. Dettah has a ball field and I think they have a youth drop-in centre, Ndilo has a gym. But it’s not a regulation size gym, so we can’t hold tournaments down here. The youth, they want an outdoor rink.
And for the elders, I think the elders are very important to our First Nations. We have an elder’s senate, and they do play a role right now, but we need to develop a memorandum of understanding so their rulings are binding on chief and council. If we can give them more of an authoritative role, then I think they’ll feel they’re making a meaningful contribution to working with the chief and council.
Q. Any other priorities that you want to share?
What about the members that are down South, who don’t live in the communities? How do we keep them involved or how do they benefit from (impact benefit agreements) and those types of things?
If at the end of the day we have the Akaitcho agreement, you’re going to want your members to work for your own government. So it would be nice to say come and work for the band, come and work for the Yellowknives Dene when you’re done graduating. I think we need to track where our students are.
“We have to spread our wings and go out on the land where there’s milk and honey.”
Elder and longtime Ndilo resident Alex Beaulieu is coming back to politics after serving on council in the late 1980s.
Leaving residential school in Fort Resolution at age 14, Beaulieu spent years working across the NWT fighting fires, fishing, building communications infrastructure and prospecting. He sees dire problems in his community and wants to encourage a movement back onto the land.
Q. How long have you lived here?
I’ve lived here now since 1993 in this community and chiefs have come and gone, different councillors. But yet there’s still the same affairs, nothing has changed. We haven’t seen housing being developed here for 10 to 15 years, since the last house was built.
Q. What do you want to see change?
We have homelessness, we have addictions. Some people are cleaning up their own acts, but for some there’s no hope. Even if they wanted to improve themselves, they want to go out hunting and such, if they got caught hunting in a no-hunting zone. It’s our caribou, but we’re being dictated where to hunt and not to hunt.
Q. What would you do about hunting if you become chief?
There’s not much that we can do politically, the land claims have been going on for a long time. And when they first introduced the comprehensive land claims to this area, that meant depleting or breaking away from the treaties and so on. I stood for the treaties then and I still stand for them today.
There’s not much we can do, the talks have been going on for years with no resolve.
Q. What are some other things you hope to do when you become chief?
Our solution is to go back to the land, go back to the grassroots and set up camps in our seasonal grounds for hunting, trapping, fishing, whatever it is. We can’t do much in this community, we’re restricted to 52 acres of land here. We can probably build perhaps another 30 houses, if that. That will really be tight, because we do need housing.
We have to spread our wings and go out on the land where there’s milk and honey. And I want to open up to tourism, so that the tourists, they want to come up here and see what we do for a living, instead of just looking at the Northern lights and spending time in hotels. We want to show them our traditions.
Q. You’ve said the youth don’t care about the elders, how can a chief change those relationships?
We’ve got to start with cultural camps. Outpost camps, a little business out in the wilderness where you can sell gas and services to the general travelling public out there, in boats, Ski-Doos, whatever is out there. And a cultural camp is what we can produce to sustain ourselves, feed the tourists. I think the tourist sector will be an interesting one.
Q. So these cultural camps, is this something that can bring your community together?
Yeah, so that the elders can teach our youth the means to survival on the land. Learn the skills, the language and be able to sustain themselves.
Q. Is there anything else you want to tell your members?
I want to encourage them. Land claims and devolution are not going to help us. We’ve been at this since 1972 and every time they get close to some good talks that might be favourable, then they change. And now we’re into devolution. Even if they say we’ll be done in two years, we can’t wait no more. We’re at a point where we have to do something. And the only thing that I can think of is to go back to our grassroots, exercise our treaty (rights).
Q. It sounds like your community is facing some difficult times.
We’re at ground zero here. It’s always been tough, even since the residential school days, our people suffered a lot. It’s still the same.
We’re in dire straits. We’ve had a lot of deaths here in the past three years: a stabbing, little Danny, drownings, unresolved cases and there’s never an arrest. If there is, nothing happens.
We’re in dire straits, we ran out of options and we’ve only got one option left and that’s the final resolution. It’s to go back to the grassroots, exercise our treaty rights. I think we can make money at it, more than we are getting now. And it’ll be healthier, more meaningful. We have to reverse the trend of poverty, sickness, homelessness. It just repeats over and over and over again.