Richard Nerysoo was born in 1953 at a camp near the Peel River in the Northwest Territories.
From an early age, Nerysoo was attracted to advocating for Indigenous rights in Canada. After the 1969 White Paper was released, that advocated for the end of the Indian Act, along with growing oil and gas exploration in the North, Indigenous activism increased across Canada.
The National Indian Brotherhood was formed, along with the Native Council of Canada. In 1969, the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories was formed. Six years later, Nerysoo became the vice-president of the Indigenous Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories.
When its president resigned, Nerysoo was made acting president. As he was still only 22, it was felt he did not have the experience to hold the position. He stepped down after a few months.
The same year that Nerysoo took on the acting president role, he testified as part of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry. He advocated for the declaration of Indigenous identity during the inquiry. He said,
“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.”
Partly due to Nerysoo, the Indigenous People of the north began to stop using the term Indian, and instead refer to themselves as Dene.
The report resulted in a 10-year moratorium on the building of the pipeline so that all Indigenous land claims could be settled prior to construction.
Nerysoo was first elected to the Northwest Territories Legislature in 1979, becoming the youngest MLA in the history of the Northwest Territories at that point. He easily defeated Lawrence Firth, a contractor from Fort McPherson, 224 votes to 123.
He became the Minister of Energy and Resources soon after.
As an MLA in the early-1980s, he played a critical role in the negotiations over the Canadian Constitution, ensuring that the rights of the Indigenous Peoples in the North were not ignored. This resulted in the preservation of Indigenous rights in Section 35 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
Stephen Kakfwi, who later became premier of the Northwest Territories, said,
“Mr. Nerysoo was instrumental in securing those amendments.”
Upon his relection in 1983, he became the third premier of the territory, but also the first Indigenous person to serve in the role, the first native-born premier of the Northwest Territories and the youngest premier in Canadian history.
Nerysoo was a strong supporter of the Northwest Territories becoming a province during his time as premier.
When the federal government made French an official language of the Territories, Nerysoo did not raise a protest over it as he hoped to use French as a bargaining tool to get more money for Indigenous Peoples language programs.
In 1985, his time as premier ended. The end came after Richard Nerysoo and Nellie Cournoyea angered many members of the Legislature over the proposed boundary to divide the Northwest Territories. The 24 members voted in a secret ballot and Nerysoo lost his post as premier, while Cournoyea lost her post as renewable resources minister. Both Indigenous ministers were replaced by white members of the Legislature.
During Expo 86, Nerysoo was a strong supporter of getting the view of the Northwest Territories in the outside world away from the stereotypical ice and snow. His government spent $6 million on a pavilion. When talking to a group of Expo officials and politicians he said.
“We are not just a land of ice and snow.”
Nerysoo was reelected in the 1987 territorial election.
On Oct. 19, 1989, Nerysoo was elected as the first Indigenous Speaker of the Assembly, a role he kept until Nov. 13, 1991. In that role, he penned an essay for the Canadian Parliamentary Review opposing changes in the Meech Lake Accord. He wrote that it would,
“allow any and every province to prevent the Northwest Territories and Yukon from becoming provinces. The amendment will also give all provinces a role in the theoretical extension of existing provinces into territories.”
In 1991, Nerysoo was once again elected to the Legislature.
Nerysoo’s time as an MLA ended when he lost in the 1995 territorial election against David Krutko.
Upon his loss, Nerysoo became president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council in 1996, serving until 2000. In that role, he oversaw the management and implementation of the Gwich’in Land Claims Agreement that granted the Gwich’in 24,000 square kilometres of land.
He was one of the founding Directors of the Aboriginal Pipeline Group. This organization represents Indigenous people in the Northwest Territories to maximize the economic and other benefits of the Mackenzie Valley pipeline.
In 2003, he was elected as the chief of the Inuvik Native Band, serving until 2008. He was also the chief negotiator on the Access and Benefits Agreements with Imperial Oil Ltd. as part of the Mackenzie Gas Project.
In that role, he advocated for conservation when it came to hunting caribou herds. He said,
“We have to be disciplined about the way we harvest. We have to realize that has to change.”
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Indspire, Whitehorse Daily Star, Wikipedia, Northwest Territories News, Vancouver Sun,