A longtime, educator, federal public servant and chief negotiator with the Sahtu Dene Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement who died on Sept. 3 is being remembered for his years as a government leader.
George Cleary, a respected Sahtu Dene leader from Deline who was born on July 2, 1955, passed away on Sept. 3 at the age of 65 after a battle with a rare form of Parkinson’s disease that affected his memory.
Colleagues and relatives say Cleary never lost sight of those whom he was serving.
Danny Gaudet, Cleary’s nephew, said Cleary was well respected for his knowledge and experience in shaping Northern governance and should be remembered for his selfless devotion in trying to empower his community.
“He was really well respected and always looked after the interests of the people,” Gaudet said. “He didn’t look at his work from the perspective of corporations or the institution but was always thinking about are people going to be happy with it.”
Gaudet said that Cleary, after leaving high school, attained his teacher’s education certificate in Fort Smith before attaining a degree at the University of Saskatchewan and returning to Délı̨nę to teach. He eventually became principal.
In 2014, he was named to the NWT Education Hall of Fame.
“One of his biggest accomplishments was pushing for Aboriginal languages to be implemented in the schools and it was a successful program,” Gaudet said. “Now schools have implemented it all over the NWT.”
He also served as chief of the Délı̨nę First Nation, president of the Sahtu Dene Council and vice-president of the Dene Nation.
Norman Yakeleya, National Chief of the Dene Nation, said he first came to know Cleary after becoming a young chief in Tulita/Fort Norman in the early ’90s. Yakeleya said Cleary introduced the concepts of Aboriginal leadership and added that it was evident early that Cleary was able to bring people together for the benefit of the community.
“My thinking on that was the he was a visionary and creator of doing things that were going to make a difference in peoples in lives in Sahtu,” Yakeleya said.
Cleary was the chief negotiator of the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement between 1991 and 1993 and relinquished that role to Yakeleya during the final months of negotiation.
“I watched the work of his political leadership in the Sahtu region and he coached and guided me,” Yakeleya recalled. “Because of his determination and vision and what he felt for the people… I was inspired by him as chief negotiator.
“It is not an easy task to make a deal with Canada or the GNWT, but he would support and encourage me to continue on land claim negotiations.”
Cleary was also called to assist as an adviser with the Délįnę Final Self-Government Agreement much later in the process, which was finalized in 2015.
For many years, Cleary served as director of Indian and Inuit services with the federal Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, as it was then known.
“He was with the federal government and put new initiatives and new programs together and he managed to assemble a very good team there that worked with bands and First Nations,” Gaudet said, noting that he was known to have done his research on files under his responsibility and was well respected by his staff members for his knowledge.
Gaudet said his uncle was an avid reader and knew about the North because he was so widely briefed on issues.
“He was successful because he had good connections, including in Ottawa, where he was respected and was always passionate about what he did. He never really thought about himself. In his job and his responsibilities, it was always about who he is delivering to. He was always in tune with that.”
He also had a strong passion for hockey, particular as a player stretching back to his years in high school, suiting up for the Grollier Hall Flyers.
A memorial service was held for Cleary at the Church of St. Theresa of the Child Jesus in Deline. Community members carried his casket to the Deline grave site.
Cleary is survived by his wife Doreen as well as sons Brent and Taylor, and his daughter Holly. He also has several grandchildren and great grandchildren.