The 16th Tłı̨chǫ annual gathering began like many before it — with hand-drums, followed by a welcoming prayer and an introduction from the grand chief.
The annual gathering is where Tłı̨chǫ voices are heard by leadership. Usually after meetings wrap up, people would come together to celebrate with drum dances, hand games and feasts.
But this year's two-day gathering on Tuesday and Wednesday was "unlike any before," said Whatı̀ Chief Alfonz Nitsiza.
Instead of packed halls, which normally would be filled with Tłı̨chǫ citizens from across the region, the meeting was watched and listened virtually due to COVID-19 restrictions.
People called in from community halls across the Tłı̨chǫ region or showed up to Behchokǫ̀'s Kǫ̀ Gocho Sportsplex Centre in the allotted time they signed up for. It was also broadcasted on Zoom, Vimeo, Facebook Live and radio.
Tłı̨chǫ citizens raised key concerns with leadership this year. Some brought up issues to do with unaffordable housing and access to education as well tourism related to the upcoming Tłı̨chǫ all-season road.
Addictions and mental health were a focal concern for many, especially youth.
Jocelyn Zoe is from Behchokǫ̀, but has been living in Edmonton for the past three years. After the pandemic, she returned to where her "roots were planted."
She said things were worse than when she left.
Zoe spoke to leadership on Wednesday and said many young people in the community deal with trauma and addictions, along with underlying mental health issues.
We lose people all the time. - Jocelyn Zoe
"But there's no support for them to go to," she said. "We lose people all of the time."
Others expressed similar concerns about receiving support in their home communities so they don't have to leave their family and support systems.
Zoe suggested more initiatives to go on the land.
"It just refreshes you," she said. "It makes you want to do better in life."
Leadership heard these calls to provide greater mental health support.
Behchokǫ̀ Chief Clifford Daniels agreed that addictions is a top priority and said the government is in the process of conducting a feasibility study for a treatment centre in Behchokǫ̀.
"We always hear that we need treatment centres locally in the North and in communities."
Leadership also noted that it was important to improve access to the land which would involve connecting knowledge holders with youth to teach them traditions.
Governance milestone on horizon
Johnny Weyallon, who helped co-ordinate the assembly this year, hopes that everything will run normally next year, especially considering that it's an election year and a key milestone.
He's excited for a big celebration next year, commemorating the 100th anniversary of Treaty 11.
As Tłı̨chǫ youth, adults, elders and leaders approach an important year for governance, communication and unity will be top of mind.
We always hear that we need treatment centres locally in the North and in communities. - Chief Clifford Daniels
"Based on the comments and also what we heard from some young people is that ... we have to have a unity in our communities and in our leadership. And we have to work together for the future of the youth," said Chief Nitsiza.
"We need to do more work for the young people who will be standing here taking the role of leadership when they feel they need to."
In the annual report, Grand Chief George Mackenzie said "in normal times, a way to build strength is for the citizens of our communities to come together in unity during the annual gathering."
"However, the pandemic has had an impact upon what we can do safely as a government."