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A Native Perspective Q. You've worked for a number of high-profile organizations and causes--the Mackenzie Valley pipeline debate, the Company of Young Canadians, the native movement at the national level. Which has had the greatest impact on your development as a leader? A. Each aspect of my work has given me something that I've grown from, but the early years with the Company of Young Canadians, the native organizations, and the many community development projects helped me develop my analytical ability. What stands out is the work we did with the Dene Nation, originally called the Indian Brotherhood. We were all very young at the time, very idealistic, and we had a tremendous amount of energy. Our commitment was amazingly high. That situation gave me the experience to do the kind of work I'm doing here.
Leadership Q. Are there particular individuals you've admired or learned from? A. The people who affected me were the people I grew up with, people I didn't know intimately but who were leaders. They conducted meetings without ever having had an Indian Affairs or territorial government course on how to conduct a meeting. They had never heard of Robert's Rules of Order or the Westminster model of government. They had learned how to conduct political meetings by watching and participating a system that had been in place since before European contact.
For example, the Dene, and most of the native people of North America, come from a background where democracy and the rights of both the individual and the collective are held in high esteem. Our people made decisions in open meetings; everyone took part, and you worked toward consensus. If consensus meant working at it for three days a week for a couple of years, then that's what happened.
The other interesting thing about this style of leadership is that there's no such thing as polling the people, then going the way the winds of change are going. You don't have the opportunity as a leader to sit back and listen and decide to jump in and look as if you're in the majority.
In our system, leaders begin the discussion, and the circle gets bigger and bigger. So you have tribal leaders, family leaders, community spokespersons, all speaking. People are encouraged to speak, even if they are going too say exactly the same thing as the person who spoke just ahead of them. I watched this process of consensus building, and when I became of age to be a leader--and the community started forcing me into a leadership position fairly quickly in my life--I had that to draw on. Q. Do you feel there's been an integration of the traditional native decision-making style with Western or European systems? A. When I was elected President of the Dene Nation, it was at the time when the territorial government had just moved from Ottawa to the North. The government was trying to instil in the native people, both the Inuit and the Dene, a system of government. They went to great pains to hire social activists, agents of change, who would come among us to teach us the ABC's of conducting meetings and how to arrive at a decision. And, of course, what they were applying was the concept by which the majority rules--never mind about the minority. You give somebody over there a few moments to debate one side of the issue, somebody else will argue against it, and then a vote is called. Forget about the people who didn't speak and haven't had an opportunity to build consensus.
The government had the resources to put this new system of decision making in place, but we had to try to dismantle it and show that the ways that work for the Dene are our own traditional ways.
Native people are forever trying to preserve their own traditions and values and systems of decision making, and yet be practical and business-like and get things done--there is a mixture of both. Since I've been National Chief, we have not yet run across a single issue where consensus was not achieved. We do everything we can to try and arrive at some kind of consensus on each question. Q. What about your own leadership style? How did it develop over the years? A. I was one of a generation of leaders that was doing something radically different. We were part of a group that was prepared to challenge non-native people. In a lot of ways, Canadian society was seeing for the first time a Dene leadership that was articulate in their language and able to analyse issues such as the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. We were not just prepared to give speeches. We were prepared to do something about our beliefs.
For a long time, I resisted an elected position. I thought it was more important that my organizing talents be used to develop leaders among young people and the community in general. So I continued in my position with the Company of Young Canadians. Then I started working with the Dene Nation as their director of field programs, to develop a leadership group that was well trained, had analytical abilities, and could rise above the situation and think issues through. Finally, when I was 27, I did decide to run for the presidency of the Dene Nation and I was elected. I had been organizing for the better part of ten years. But the world thought, "Here's a long-haired young radical." Q. Did it concern you that an aggressive, confrontational approach might actually obscure the message you were trying to get across? A. I think the message had never been so clear and consistent. I do believe we were right. All of our people were firmly behind us. We really had nothing to lose. We--and I'm continuing to use the plural because I was never alone--were all very forceful. As to confrontation with the government, it became natural. The government was encouraging mega-projects prior to any kind of recognition of land rights for the Dene. The Dene perspective, which I had grown up with, was that we had never surrendered the land. It became obvious to people like myself that events were going to completely overtake us: we would never be in charge of our lives, we would never be able to have any kind of influence, unless we stepped in and became players. We could not sit on the sidelines and watch our lands being developed. And with the support of our people, we began to act. Yes, we started to look confrontational. That was then. People look back now, at a time when the Dene and the Metis signing an agreement-in-principle with government seems very everyday. But back then it was …