New Dehcho First Nations grand chief vows to amplify voices, enhance transparency

·4 min read
Kenny Cayen was first elected chief of West Point First Nation two years ago. Now, he's taking over the role of grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)
Kenny Cayen was first elected chief of West Point First Nation two years ago. Now, he's taking over the role of grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations. (Anna Desmarais/CBC - image credit)

Incoming Grand Chief Kenny Cayen says the first thing he does when he arrives in a community is find a fire spot, lay down tobacco, and give thanks to the spirits that are watching over the land and water.

"That's my practice that I do, and a lot of people do that too," he said.

Cayen was elected grand chief of the Dehcho First Nations by acclamation Thursday, at the 28th Dehcho Annual General Assembly in Fort Providence, N.W.T. He'll take over from outgoing Grand Chief Gladys Norwegian, who didn't seek re-election.

Cayen was first elected chief of West Point First Nation two years ago, but he'd been thinking about politics and amplifying the voices in his community long before then.

"I used to sit around the campfire with the elders, and I was very lucky, growing up, to have translators present at these fires, and I got to hear all the aspirations of the Indigenous governments," he said.

"[They] felt that they weren't being heard back in those days, so I carry those with me all my life."

Getting voices heard

Cayen said he left the North for a time, spent a few years in Edmonton, and returned about six years ago.

He got the itch to enter politics while working at Diavik Diamond Mine, where, talking to people from other communities, he heard concerns about regional governments and that different communities shared many of the same issues.

"Whenever somebody talks to me, I hold it with me," he said, "because a lot of times, they don't have that voice."

Cayen said he'll be a voice for young people, and that sports and recreation are passions. He said he enjoys spending time on the water and in the bush.

'Our laws are higher than colonial laws'

Cayen also promises greater transparency in the Dehcho process, negotiations which recently have focused on self-government.

"I want to get in there and start making a difference," said Cayen, "and to make sure our government is adequate for the Dene, and not have people telling us how to create our own government."

Cayen said he wants to move away from European styles of government.

"Our laws are higher than colonial laws, so that's what I believe, and that's why people want me to speak for them."

Election met with some controversy

Cayen's rise to grand chief this week was met with some controversy.

He was acclaimed by delegates at the Dehcho general assembly after the election committee reported that two other candidates' election packages were "not finalized by the due date."

One of those two candidates was former Dehcho Grand Chief Herb Norweigian.

He said his election package was complete when he handed it in, and expressed disappointment in the decision to acclaim Cayen.

"I was totally embarrassed by that and I ... felt like I let my people down, you know? But at the same time, I felt that I was rejected by a handful of people, which was actually the committee," said Norwegian.

Norwegian said Cayen's win was a "major blow" to people who wanted a leader with more experience, and "somebody that can speak the language and can actually sit down and haggle with anybody, whether it's government or business."

Still, he's not contesting the outcome.

"I don't want to upset people," he said.

Instead, Norwegian would like a review of what happened.

'Overwhelmed with tears of joy'

Rosie Browning of Łı́ı́dlı̨́ı̨́ Kų́ę́ First Nation in Fort Simpson, N.W.T., has a different view.

She was "overwhelmed with tears of joy" by Cayen's election, and is glad to have a young person at the helm of the Dehcho First Nations.

"Whether or not Kenny was acclaimed, Kenny has a lot of good to bring to the future our First Nations, especially in the Dehcho," she said.

"The pressures of the institution, and the structures and procedures that come with those institutions, is something that he'll be able to navigate in the 21st century."

The Dehcho general assembly also decided this year to extend the grand chief's term from three years to four years.

Cayen will be sworn in as grand chief one month after the election date.

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