CBC In Depth
Stephen Kakfwi in a January, 2002 photo. (CP PHOTO/Adrian Wyld)
IN DEPTH: ABORIGINAL CANADIANS
Stephen Kakfwi: Straight talker
Nov. 17, 2005

Stephen Kakfwi has been fighting for one goal most of his life: for the people of the Northwest Territories to have control over their destiny. For Kakfwi, that means having power over the territories' resources and development.

Kakfwi was born at Fort Good Hope, N.W.T., in 1950 to full-blooded Slavey parents. However, he is a non-status Indian because his grandfather gave up his treaty rights in order to own property and run a fur-trading business.

During the 1970s, Kakfwi fought fervently against the proposed construction of a pipeline across the traditional homeland of the Dene people. The Mackenzie Valley pipeline project would become Kakfwi's political badge of honour. He would make a complete reversal of opinion on the project when he became premier in 2000, fighting for the pipeline to be built.

Kakfwi told reporters that he used to be an angry young man who saw government and industry as his enemies. He also didn't believe his people were ready, at the time, for economic development. In an interview with Oilweek magazine, Kakfwi was blunt: "We were coming out of the bush. We had no capacity to engage the pipeline companies."

This direct approach with people and situations didn't earn Kakfwi many friends. He once compared the federal government's attitude towards the North to that of "benevolent colonialists." Kakfwi has been described as both enigmatic and remote.

Criticism did not stop Kakfwi from pursuing a career in politics.

Kakfwi set his sights on the Dene leadership in 1980. He ran against George Erasmus who won easily over his upstart opponent. When Erasmus was elected grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations in 1983, Kakfwi ran again and won.

Kakfwi guided the Dene-M�tis land-claims discussions and spearheaded the creation of the Dene Cultural Institute and Indigenous Survival International. He also organized the Pope's visits to the N.W.T. in 1984 and 1987.

He was first elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in 1987, representing the constituency of Sahtu � a vast area covering 254,000 square kilometres. He held several cabinet positions including education, aboriginal rights, resources, economic development and constitutional development.

Kakfwi pushed to have the diamonds mined in the North processed and polished there, as well. Resource development became his call to battle. His passion for the cause resulted in a major gaffe in early September 2003 when he accused the De Beers Group of hiding the identity of its diamonds.

De Beers is the controlling interest in the Snap Lake diamond property. Kakfwi, in an off-the-cuff remark, said De Beers deals with diamonds from conflict zones � gems that are often called "blood" or "conflict" diamonds.

He would retract his comments two days later on CBC News Business: "I regret the statements that I made. They were not accurate."

Always concerned about the territory's economic well-being, Kakfwi has pushed repeatedly for a revenue-sharing agreement with the federal government.

"The highways around here are disintegrating � the diamond mines are paying royalties to the federal government, but the federal government has yet to produce any money to fix those roads," said Kakfwi in a 2002 Maclean�s magazine profile.

When Kakfwi stood up in the N.W.T. legislative assembly on Oct. 1, 2003, to announce that he wouldn't seek re-election, he said he had accomplished what he had set out to do.

Since leaving office, Kakfwi has been involved in several projects. He is a member of the National Round Table on the Environment and Economy. He also represented the Sahtu communities in 2005 in negotiations with Imperial Oil over the construction of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline. But his proposal that aboriginal communities be allowed to levy property taxes on the pipeline met stiff resistance � and he was dropped from the negotiating team.

Kakfwi has also started speaking out about the abuse he suffered as a child in residential schools � and has been encouraging other native leaders to do the same.


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