Dene from across the Northwest Territories are gathered in Fort Smith, N.W.T. for the 2014 Dene National Assembly. 

The annual event is a major social gathering, marked with feasts, drum dances and Dene hand games, but there are two serious topics delegates can’t seem to stay away from: development and devolution. 

Drummers at the Dene hand games

Drummers keep the beat during Dene hand games at the Dene National Assembly. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

“We have to be in a position where it’s our agenda, not someone else’s,” says Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus.

Earlier this year, devolution came into effect in the N.W.T. and aboriginal leaders are trying to figure out how to work together to navigate the new system as key oil, gas and mining developments are also taking place.

Erasmus wants Dene First Nations to work together.

"We're looking at developing a protocol that would bring all of our people's together so that we're able to design a method about how we'd all succeed rather than proposals coming from the outside and making us react to them."

Dene hand games

Dene hand games in Fort Fitzgerald, Alta. during the Dene National Assembly. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

“If there's going to be resource development then we should be the ones driving it,” says Darrell Beaulieu, the CEO of Denendeh Investments, a company owned by the 27 First Nations in the Northwest Territories.

It has stakes in oil, gas, mining and communications.

"Individually, government doesn't have the resources. Individually First Nations don't have the resources. Industry may have the resources, but I think it's key what people are saying here is that we all gotta work together because there's a mutual benefit in that."

Beaulieu says a balanced approach is necessary, factoring in the economic benefits and the environmental effects of each project.

Perry Bellegarde

Perry Bellegarde, chief of the federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, addresses the 2014 Dene National Assembly. (Jacob Barker/CBC)

Chief Perry Bellegarde of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations also attended the assembly.

The province is home to part of the Bakken oil formation, said to contain billions of barrels of oil.

“We’re not opposed to development, but let’s do it in a proper way,” he says. “In a way that respects the land and water, through a long-term economic development strategy. That's what indigenous peoples are about. And that's why we've got to get to the table and start developing a long term energy strategy, with First Nations people fully at the table, because we’re not there now."

Bellegarde says the province of Saskatchewan began fracking without any consultation or consent from First Nations.

The Dene National Assembly wraps up today. It's being hosted by the Salt River First Nation in Fort Smith and the Smith Landing First Nation in Fort Fitzgerald, Alta.