First Nation in Northern Canada begins new era as decades-long chief steps down

Three candidates are vying to succeed Bill Erasmus, who is stepping down as Dene National Chief after almost 30 years in the top job. Voting begins Wednesday afternoon in Hay River, N.W.T. (John Last/CBC)
It will be a historical turning point for the Dene Nation today, as delegates from across and outside the Northwest Territories (N.W.T.) vote in a new national chief.

Bill Erasmus is leaving the post after nearly three decades, paving way for one of three candidates — Eileen Marlowe, Richard Edjericon and Norman Yakeleya — to take over in what many call “a new era” for the organization.

The people will speak.

Richard Edjericon

Hundreds gathered for the Dene National Assembly on Tuesday in Hay River, N.W.T., in an overcrowded venue, under scorching heat. The venue is expected to move to the town’s arena for election day.

From land claims to Dene rights

The Dene Nation, which was originally the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories, was founded in 1969 partially in response to a controversial government White Paper that suggested Indigenous people assimilate into wider Canadian society.

Hundreds of delegates gathered at the Soaring Eagle Friendship Centre in downtown Hay River, N.W.T., as the Dene National Assembly got underway Tuesday. The election for national chief on Wednesday is scheduled to happen at the arena across the street. (Priscilla Hwang/CBC)

It was once responsible for negotiating a comprehensive land claim for all Dene and Métis (another Indigenous group) in the territory. Today, it’s become a political organization that advocates for Dene rights.

There are more than 350 delegates eligible to vote today — 46 Gwich’in, 46 Sahtu, 62 Tlicho, 67 Dehcho, 54 Akaitcho, and 104 independents.

Each of the three candidates will give a speech and answer questions at a forum in the morning.

There are more than 350 delegates eligible to vote – 46 Gwich’in, 46 Sahtu, 62 Tlicho, 67 Dehcho, 54 Akaitcho, and 104 independents. (CBC)
Three contenders

Edjericon said he’s not nervous for the vote later in the afternoon.

“As I play in hockey, there’s a winner and there’s a loser,” Edjericon, a former chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, said Tuesday.

“The people will speak.”

Richard Edjericon says he’s not nervous for the election taking place Wednesday afternoon. (John Last/CBC)

Marlowe, on the other hand, said she has worked hard to get over what she calls the vulnerability of entering politics for the first time.

“I’ve basically opened up myself. I’ve exposed myself, I put myself out there for criticism,” said Marlowe, currently working on a master’s degree in communications management.

“The cards will fall where they need to fall … I would like to think I have a pretty good chance.”

‘I put myself out there for criticism,’ says Eileen Marlowe, who is entering politics for the first time by running for Dene National Chief. (John Last/CBC)

Yakeleya wasn’t available for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Going forward

Many elders and leaders at the assembly say the new chief will be tasked with bringing the organization forward.

“I believe now, today in 2018, [we need] to revisit and re-look at what the mandate of Dene Nation is,” said Bobbie Jo Greenland Morgan, grand chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council. “Because obviously, it’s changed from those days when we were all united and working toward one land claim agreement.”

“We really need to listen very closely and make sure that we pick the right person for the position … if we are to move forward effectively,” Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian of the Dehcho First Nations said during her member’s address on Tuesday.

“We have a lot of work ahead of us.”

Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Natan Obed re-elected as president of Canadian Inuit organization, CBC News

Finland: Budget cuts threaten international Sámi language cooperation, YLE News

Norway: Arctic Indigenous food culture takes the day at international cookbook awards, Eye on the Arctic

Russia: Russia plans fenced parks to confine reindeer herding in Arctic, The Independent Barents Observer

Sweden: Legal battle over hunting and fishing in Sweden’s far north, Radio Sweden

United States: Feature Interview: Every Inuk needs to stand up and be counted, says new ICC chair, Eye on the Arctic

Priscilla Hwang, CBC News

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