Third Time Unlucky

A sneak peek, from the upcoming February/March issue of the print edition of EDGE YK magazine: 

For over a year, various people from Tulita, Deline and Fort Good Hope asked me to run for MLA in the Sahtu riding. I resisted. Since I retired from the CBC in Yellowknife a few years ago, I’ve really enjoyed being out of the nine-to-five routine. But Elders said, “We need someone who grew up on the land and knows the language, we want you to run.” I was born on the land and travelled Shuhtah, or Mackenzie Mountains with my family, speaking Slavey until I was taken to residential school at age eight. As long as I can remember I always looked with reverence to Elders. They represented everything about being Dene. I told friends, if Elders asked me to do something, I had an obligation to do it. I decided to go for it.

It is not the first public office I’ve sought. At the urging of Elders I ran for, and was elected, Chief of Fort Norman in my early twenties. And again before I was 30 I ran for vice-president of the Dene Nation and was successful. I was an angry young man. Angry at the way Aboriginal people were treated. My dad, who did not speak or understand English, was sent to Edmonton for medical alone, where he died alone. I often wondered what it was like for him to come from a big family and die all alone. Trappers were regularly telling me of how their traplines were run over by bulldozers. People were complaining about the treaties. We did not give up the land! Why is the Government saying it belongs to them? With the support of people who lived on the land and who were healthy, I was pretty confident and cocky at times.

More than 40 years have passed since my first election and I still get riled up by the injustices I see, but I wondered if I could campaign again with the same level of confidence.

I live in Yellowknife, so first I had to fly to Tulita to file my nomination papers. It took two days! I submitted my papers to the local returning officer twice. Both times she handed them back to me saying she did not know what to do with them. The night before I was to leave, she got ahold of someone who helped her, and she finally accepted my papers.

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After that I had to go back to Yellowknife where I had commitments I’d made months ago. Then the campaign started slowly, but in no time it picked up. From phone conservations and speaking with people from the Sahtu, there appeared to be support all over the region. Elders and those who did not speak or understand English were happy to see someone who knew about a way of life and language. One Elder said he had been complaining about bed bugs but nothing was done. He said he would wake up at night with the bugs running on his arm. Another told of how difficult it was to get by on old pension with the very high cost of living. Another spoke of the frustrations of trying to teach young people who did not understand their language. I was happy to run for them, and was more determined to succeed so I could give them a voice.

About 10 days into the campaign I sent a friend a note. “So far it’s been pretty good. I feel there is a lot support among the older people. Not sure about the young voters, but still feeling good. Today in Fort Good Hope I will go to church, then go door-to-door for the rest of the day. I asked if we can have hand games tonight. We’ll see!”

I spent the whole day knocking on doors. Everything from lack of jobs to land and water, to Elders feeling ignored and the high cost of living were on people’s’ minds. It was a good day. Lots of people said they support me. I was trying to be visible by walking around town. People stopped to give me a ride and to talk.

Another day I spent most of my time with Elders: Charlie, Thomas, Gabe just to name a few. They had a lot of comical stories and I remembered with Elders you never just say hello, you should plan for at least a couple of hours. I dropped by bingo and poker games too. I was feeling good, but not overconfident… not taking anything for granted. Someone in Norman Wells had told me, “Here, it’s between you and so and so.” Similarly, a couple of people in Fort Good Hope told me it was down to me and another candidate. Others said, “Don’t worry, you’re going to do OK.”

By the time I got to Tulita, just days before the vote, I felt pretty good… but still not overconfident.

Then came election night. I walked around town, not to campaign but to visit and laugh. I felt good. Regardless of the result, we had planned to hold a feast and handgames at the community hall to thank donors, supporters and those who encouraged me to run.

As it got closer to polls closing we started the feast. There were dozens of people, laughing, eating and telling stories. After that we started the handgames. I was too busy with the games to follow the election. But every once in awhile someone would show me results on their iPhone.

Then the results came in for the Sahtu. Danny McNeely was declared the winner. At that point, Elections NWT said I had gotten only 122 votes from five communities. Of the four candidates, I was dead last. I was shocked! I thought I prepared myself for defeat… but last? I really felt I had more support. One of the candidates is my niece and the other my in-law and I figured we would split the votes: but I did not expect to end up last!

I really felt sad and felt I let down supporters and donors – and Elders. I was so disappointed in the low turnout; out of 1,592 eligible voters, only 734 people cast ballots. Then I realized this must be politics. Someone had to lose. Why not me? I remember a politician once told me, “Politics is like doing drugs, the highs are wonderful but the lows are terrible.” I remember during the campaign sitting with Elders and laughing, listening to stories and feeling great to be alive. Now I felt so alone. I was not alone, but I felt so alone.

I walked around the arena as the drummers kept the beat going for the handgames, and shook hands with people. A lot of them were sad. I tried to cheer them up. But they knew I was quite down. Still, we tried to laugh and appear happy. Somebody yelled out, “There are new numbers and you improved a lot.” The total number of ballots cast rose to 917. I had gained another 107 votes, enough to drag me up to second last place, only 42 votes behind the winner… but it did not mean anything. I’ve never entered anything to lose. Whether it was playing cards, old-timer hockey, slo-pitch; the goal was always to win. Now I felt like the biggest loser!

One of the older guys saw the look on my face. He came up to me and said, “What the hell, we’re Mountain Dene, when we fall down we just get up and go.” I felt better, but I could not get over the sadness I felt for Elders and those who had urged me to run.

I walked out into the clear warm evening and looked at the Mackenzie River before me and to Bear Rock in the north and the mountains across from Tulita, and in that moment I realized I am a very lucky guy. Sure, I did not come close to winning, but I am not the only one who came up short. There must be other sad people around the North. I realized the old man is right: I come from a great people, a wonderful family and have a lot of caring loving friends. I went back inside smiling to the sound of the drums and happy to be playing our traditional game.

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