Early Life and Education
Stephen Kakfwi was born to Dene parents in the Fort Good Hope area of the Northwest Territories. His grandfather had been forced to give up his rights as a Status Indian (under the Indian Act) in order to start a business (see Indian and Enfranchisement). This meant that Kakfwi was a Non-Status person, even though he was culturally and linguistically strongly connected to the Dene community. Kakfwi later regained Indian status in 1987. Like many young people of his generation, he began his life living on the land and developing strong connections to the Indigenous communities and cultures along the Mackenzie River.
After unhappy and difficult experiences as a residential school student, Kakfwi was selected by Bishop Paul Piché to attend Grandin College, a boarding school in Fort Smith. Piché recruited a number of high-potential northern and Indigenous students, including Kakfwi and future Northwest Territories leaders Ethel Blondin-Andrew, Robert McLeod, Michael Miltenberger and others, to attend the school. Under the guidance of such teachers as Father Paul Pochat, Kakfwi improved academically and graduated from high school. Like the others, he was educated and supported with the expectation that he would take a prominent role in regional affairs.
Kakfwi attended the University of Alberta, where he studied education, but he was drawn back to the North before completing his degree by the political ferment of that time. Indigenous rights emerged as a major national issue in the late 1960s, overlapping with intense debates about the future of resource development in the territorial North. Promising oil and gas discoveries along the Mackenzie River and in the Beaufort Sea thrust the region into national and international prominence. Gathering frustrations among Indigenous peoples in Canada engulfed the Northwest Territories, where questions about Indigenous title, the absence of viable treaties and growing economic and social dislocation animated territorial public affairs. When Kakfwi returned from Alberta in the early 1970s, he found himself quickly immersed in the political tumult in the territory.
Stephen Kakfwi burst into national prominence and regional politics during the 1970s debates about the proposed Mackenzie Valley Pipeline. Like many Indigenous northerners, he resented the imposition of major infrastructure in the region without appropriate consultation and territorial involvement. When the final report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, typically associated with Judge Thomas Berger, recommended that the pipeline be delayed, Kakfwi and others saw this as a sign of their growing political strength.
Kakfwi ran to be president of the Dene Nation, one of the leading Indigenous organizations in the region, initially losing to Georges Erasmus in 1980 and then replacing him three years later when Erasmus became northern vice-chief of the Assembly of First Nations. Kakfwi served in that role until 1987. He played important roles in all of the leading territorial affairs of this era, including negotiations on the Dene Nation’s comprehensive land claim against the Government of Canada, efforts to have Pope John Paul II come to the Northwest Territories, and extended efforts to promote cultural and linguistic resilience among the Dene and other northern peoples. The creation of the Dene Cultural Institute (now called the Yamozha Kue Society) stood out among his many contributions.
Kakfwi, like Erasmus, was active nationally and internationally. He helped found Indigenous Survival International, an organization that engaged in public education to support the wildlife-harvesting economy of northern Indigenous people in the face of a European boycott of furs. In addition, he chaired the Constitutional Development Steering Committee, composed of Indigenous leaders and members of the Northwest Territories Assembly. This body attempted, without success in the end, to design a new form of government for the western portion of the Northwest Territories — following division of the territory and the creation of Nunavut — that would both govern all people in the territory and embody the principle of Indigenous self-government. Kakfwi was politically active during the intense debates leading up to the division of the Northwest Territories, a process that concluded with the establishment of Nunavut in the eastern and central Arctic in 1999.
Representing the constituency of Sahtu, Stephen Kakfwi was elected to the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in 1987. He subsequently held a range of ministerial responsibilities, including Resources, Wildlife and Economic Development, Education, Housing, Safety and Public Services, Aboriginal Rights, Personnel, Workers’ Compensation Board and Justice. While Minister of Education, he created regional boards of education as a response to the huge scale of the Northwest Territories and the desire of residents of its various regions to have more control over their communities. As the Minister Responsible for National Constitutional Affairs, he played a major role in the Northwest Territories’ participation in the negotiations that led to the creation of the Charlottetown Accord. The Government of the Northwest Territories runs on the basis of consensus, that is, a system in which political parties play no role. After each election, the members of the Assembly elect one of their colleagues to serve as premier. Kakfwi was elected premier of the 14th Legislative Assembly in January 2000.
Kakfwi strongly, but cautiously, promoted non-renewable resource development in the Northwest Territories, while also working to support Indigenous wildlife harvesting. He championed the creation of the diamond industry in the Northwest Territories and vigorously promoted a revitalized and redefined Mackenzie Valley natural gas pipeline proposal. For Kakfwi, who opposed the initial pipeline proposal, the latter project differed greatly in the level of Indigenous engagement in the planning and the fact that northern Indigenous communities would become substantial minority stakeholders in the facility. Lengthy delays associated with the socioeconomic and environmental assessment of the project slowed project development, with the pipeline being put on hold due to changing market conditions. He has long advocated for resource-revenue sharing, which finally came to the Northwest Territories after the Government of Canada devolved responsibility for control of land and resources. He worked to strengthen the Government of the Northwest Territories by negotiating the devolution of federal government powers to the Northwest Territories. He also sought a share of the revenues the federal government receives from mineral resources extracted from the Northwest Territories, a step he saw as essential to ending the economic marginalization of the region.
Kakfwi did not contest the territorial election of 2003. Joseph Handley succeeded him as premier.
Community and Regional Work
Since 2003, Stephen Kakfwi has participated on behalf of Sahtu communities in negotiations concerning the construction and operation of the proposed Mackenzie Valley gas pipeline, and has worked to raise awareness of the abuse that he and others experienced in residential schools. In 2005, he was appointed to the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy, a widely representative body that advised the Government of Canada on long-term energy and climate change strategies. He served as an adviser to the World Wildlife Fund (Canada) and was a member of the board for Vision Television. He supports local community initiatives, and promotes a balanced approach to resource development that respects Indigenous needs, protects the environment and attracts corporate investment. Kakfwi has been at the forefront of efforts including the International Boreal Conservation Campaign and the Indigenous Leadership Initiative. In 2014, he founded Canadians for a New Partnership, and now serves as its president and CEO. He is also a frequent public speaker and a noted singer-songwriter.
Awards and Honours
Aboriginal Achievement Award for Public Service (now Indspire Award) (1997)
Council of Canadians with Disabilities Award (2003)
Governor General’s Northern Medal (2012)
Stephen Kakfwi’s political and professional career spanned a crucial transitional generation in the development of the North. When he was in school at Grandin College, studying with many of the leaders who would subsequently dominate territorial politics, Indigenous peoples in the region had little recognition of their rights, no modern treaties and a marginal role in the expanding resource economy. The political struggle that Kakfwi joined and then led in the 1970s and 1980s was truly remarkable, launching the northern land claims process, securing a series of impressive treaties, leading the battle for responsible government and devolution in the Northwest Territories and redefining the role of Indigenous peoples and communities in the natural resource economy. He played an important role in the division of the Northwest Territories and the creation of Nunavut and served as premier of the Northwest Territories during the crucial first years after the separation of the larger territory. Few jurisdictions in Canada have experienced such rapid political, legal and constitutional changes as has the Northwest Territories from the 1970s to the early 2000s. Even fewer people had front row seats to political transformations of this magnitude or played the active, professional and constructive role in the remaking of the North as did Kakfwi.