Early Life and Education
Richard Nerysoo was born in 1953 in a tent on the shore of the Peel River near Fort McPherson, also known as Teetl’it Zheh in the Gwich’in language, in the Northwest Territories. He was educated at Fort McPherson and Inuvik, Northwest Territories, and Whitehorse, Yukon.
Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories
Incorporated in 1970, the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories was the product of a politically charged environment in Canada’s North and in Indigenous communities throughout the country during the late 1960s. The Trudeau government’s 1969 White Paper and increased oil and gas exploration along the Mackenzie River Valley, the Beaufort Sea and other regions in the Arctic, among other issues, prompted the formation of Indigenous political organizations in an attempt to protect Indigenous rights. The National Indian Brotherhood (which gave rise to the Assembly of First Nations) and Native Council of Canada (now Congress of Aboriginal Peoples), both founded in 1968, sought to address Indigenous concerns nationwide. In the Northwest Territories, 16 Indigenous political leaders from across the region united on 3 October 1969 to form the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories. They, along with other organizations such as the Métis and Non-Status Native Association of the Northwest Territories (incorporated in 1972) sought to address Indigenous issues specific to their region. (See also Métis).
In 1975, Richard Nerysoo became vice-president of the Indigenous Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories. Following the resignation of president James Wah-Shee, Nerysoo became the acting president of the organization. However, at the age of 22, other members of the assembly believed that Nerysoo did not have the experience to hold the position. Nerysoo stepped down and was replaced by Georges Erasmus in an election seven months later in 1976.
Between 14 and 20 August 1978, during the eighth Dene National Assembly, held in Fort Norman in the Northwest Territories, the Indian Brotherhood of Northwest Territories officially changed their name to the Dene Nation.
The Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry
On 21 March 1974, the Canadian government commissioned the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, also known as the Berger Inquiry, named after the royal commissioner of the inquiry, Justice Thomas R. Berger. The purpose of the inquiry was to gather testimony on the environmental, economic and social impact of two proposed natural gas pipelines. The longer of the two would have been the longest natural gas pipeline in the world. The pipeline’s route was to move across the northern Yukon from the Arctic Ocean to the Mackenzie River Valley and then south to Alberta. The vast amounts of terrain covered by the route would affect many Indigenous communities. As a result, Berger heard testimony from several Indigenous leaders, including a young Richard Nerysoo in 1975.
Nerysoo’s statements on the impact of the pipeline on the Dene Nation and other Indigenous groups became known for its declaration of Indigenous identity. As Nerysoo stated before the Berger Inquiry in 1975:
It is very clear to me that it is an important and special thing to be an Indian. Being an Indian means being able to understand and live with this world in a very special way.… It means saying the land is an old friend and an old friend your father knew, your grandfather knew, indeed your people always have known.… We see our land as much, much more than the white man sees it. To the Indian people, our land really is our life. Without our land we cannot or we could no longer exist as people.... If your people ever take our land, you will be taking our life.
Emphasizing the importance of traditional territory, and rights to those lands, Nerysoo spoke to wider issues of Indigenous identity. During the proceedings, many Dene people began to replace the colonial term “Indian” with Dene as a self-identifier.
The inquiry was a success, and it became regarded as a model of how to best gather input from Indigenous communities before large development projects began in the northern territories. Berger’s report Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland, issued in May 1977, called for a 10-year moratorium so that all Indigenous land claims could be settled prior to construction. Additionally, the report found that the impact of a pipeline across the delicate environments of the Yukon would be too severe, and decisively opposed any construction in that region. Amid these recommendations and changing economic conditions, the project was put on hold.
Legislative Political Career
In 1979, Richard Nerysoo ran in the general election of the Northwest Territories and was elected as a member of the Northwest Territories Legislature. The first of many historical and political milestones for Nerysoo, this election made him the youngest person ever elected a member of the Legislative Assembly in the Northwest Territories. He held this position for 16 years, until 1995.
Nerysoo’s first role was as minister of energy and resources for his territory. He also fought adamantly for Indigenous rights prior to the patriation of the Constitution in 1982. Stephen Kakfwi, a former premier of the Northwest Territories and president of the Dene Nation, has lauded Nerysoo’s work as integral to securing the language necessary to preserve Indigenous rights in section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
In the 1983 territorial election, Nerysoo ran and retained his seat in the Legislature. He became Canada’s first Indigenous premier in January 1984 (a position that was called “government leader” in the Northwest Territories until 1994). He served as premier until 1985.
In 1987, Nerysoo ran in the Northwest Territories general election and was re-elected to his seat in the Legislature. On 19 October 1989, Nerysoo was elected Speaker of the Assembly — the first Indigenous person to serve in that role. He held this position until 1991.
Nerysoo was re-elected in 1991 during the territorial election to a fourth term. In the 1995 election, Nerysoo had two opponents and lost in an upset victory to David Krutko, who went on to hold the position until 2011.
Gwich’in Tribal Council
In 1996, Richard Nerysoo was elected president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, an Indigenous organization established in 1992 to represent Gwich’in peoples in the Mackenzie Delta and across Canada. Nerysoo held this post until 2000. Nerysoo oversaw the management and implementation of the historic Gwich’in Land Claims Agreement, which officially granted the Gwich’in nearly 24,000 km2 of land in the Yukon and Northwest Territories.
Nerysoo was also chair of the Gwich’in Council International. Founded in 1999 by the Gwich’in Tribal Council, this group was to ensure the representation of Gwich’in people in the Arctic Council.
Nerysoo also served as chief of the Inuvik Native Band of the Northwest Territories, before he was re-elected president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in 2008. He held this post until 2012, when he lost in a re-election bid to Robert Alexie Jr. Nerysoo has also served as chief negotiator in the transboundary negotiations between the Canadian government and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun in Mayo, Yukon.
Aboriginal Pipeline Group
In 2000, Richard Nerysoo helped to found the Aboriginal Pipeline Group. This organization represented Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories, seeking to maximize the economic and other benefits in a Mackenzie Valley pipeline.
In 2003, the Aboriginal Pipeline Group became partners in the Mackenzie Valley pipeline project with oil companies that included Imperial Oil. Nerysoo also served as chairman of the Northwest Territories Power Corporation from 2002 to 2006.
The Working Group on National Resources Development
In December 2013, the Working Group on Natural Resource Development was formed as a joint initiative between the Assembly of First Nations and what is now Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada. With funding provided by the Canadian government, the group was to identify the ways in which Indigenous peoples could best benefit from natural resource development projects. As a volunteer appointee, Richard Nerysoo joined the group.
In March 2015, after over a year of study, the Working Group released a report entitled Advancing Positive, Impactful Change. The main recommendation of the report was to ensure that resource revenue was adequately shared among Indigenous peoples of the region. The report stated that it was critical, moving forward, for Indigenous peoples to be intricately involved in any resource development in their territory during all phases.
Awards and Achievements
In 2001, the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation, now called Indspire, awarded Richard Nerysoo with the Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service. Indspire is a charity dedicated to investing funds in development and education programs for Indigenous peoples in Canada.
Beginning his career as a young politician, Richard Nerysoo quickly rose to national prominence as an articulate and educated representative of the Indigenous peoples of the Northwest Territories. Nerysoo’s political legacy is one of success, and of breaking barriers and setting milestones for Indigenous peoples in Canada. As the first Indigenous premier of the Northwest Territories, Nerysoo worked to protect Indigenous rights — a cause he continued to support well after his legislative career.
Thomas R. Berger, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: The Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry (1977).
Canadian Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Working Group on Natural Resource Development, First Nations and Natural Resource Development: Advancing Positive, Impactful Change (2015).