Carcross activist honoured as Buffett Award finalist

Harold Gatensby is a community leader. He’s a healer, but doesn’t possess any magical powers.

Harold Gatensby is a community leader.

He’s a healer, but doesn’t possess any magical powers.

He’s a moderator without a master’s degree.

This week the Carcross-based activist will become the first Yukoner to place as a finalist for the Buffett Award for Indigenous Leadership.

“He’s a longstanding leader for the Dahka Tlingit in the Yukon,” Elizabeth Woody, Ecosystem’s director of indigenous leadership programs, said from Oregon.

“He’s worked all of his life for judicial fairness for native people, particularly native youth, and has worked to protect the Yukon River watershed.”

Gatensby and four others, including the 2006 Buffett Award winner Guujaaw from British Columbia’s Haida Nation, will be honoured at a ceremony Wednesday in Portland, Oregon.

Gatensby is a healer, said Woody.

“Harold has travelled all over the world; he performs water ceremonies and healing ceremonies.

“He believes in the healing abilities of people to overcome poverty and pain, and that violence comes because of poverty. He understands the residual effects of boarding schools on indigenous people.

“He has been recognized in a lot of different contexts,” she added.

His interest in justice was sparked by experience  —  Gatensby spent many years of his youth in the prison system, according to his bio.

Gatensby is a strong supporter of community justice, or circle sentencing, an innovative way to take traditional First Nations’ practices and use them to heal the offender, the victim and the community.

The circle sentencing takes place outside of the established territorial justice system.

The premise is that the offender and his or her family meet with the victims and their families to talk about what they have to do to right the wrong.

Then, the offender can decide to accept their decision, or take the sentence prescribed by the court system.

“He epitomizes the consciousness of having a whole community, a healing community — he believes that people can retreat and learn to interact with one another,” said Woody.

He was the Yukon rep for the Aboriginal Justice Learning Network in Ottawa and was instrumental in creating the Southern Lakes Justice Committee in the early ‘90s.

In 1995, he founded Nares Mountain Wilderness Camp, where he facilitates restorative justice and environmental training.

And in 2000, Britain’s Princess Anne presented him with an individual merit award for his community justice work and innovative approach to crime prevention in his community.

Along with his work in justice, Gatensby is a fierce protector of the environment.

One day he wants to be able to drink out of the Yukon River, said Woody.

So, in 1997 he co-founded the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council and travelled to South Africa to represent the council at the United Nations Earth Summit in 2002.

Currently he serves on the council’s executive committee.

Meanwhile, he is a father to 13 children, 10 of whom have already graduated from high school, said Woody.

The award is presented through Ecotrust, a non-profit organization mandated to better the lives of those in the Salmon Nation, which extends along the historical range of Pacific salmon from Baja, California, to the Yukon and Alaska.

Ecotrust established the award in 2001 to acknowledge indigenous leaders who often go unnoticed in their communities and have access to little financial support without strings attached, according to Ecotrust’s website.

It’s financed by the families of Howard and Peter Buffett — sons of billionaire business magnate Warren Buffett.

It recognizes aboriginal leaders of all stripes from the Salmon Nation who are 35 or older.

With the acclamation comes a $2,500 cheque for investment into the finalist’s community, or personal initiatives. The winner gets $25,000.

The organization gets between 14 and 28 nominations each year.

And it’s not something people do lightly, said Woody.

“It takes a lot of investment and people are very concerned with making their nominee the best candidate possible, which means gathering other letters of support and other materials to provide a 360-review of that individual,” she added.

Gatensby could not be reached for comment because he’s en route to the award ceremony, but look for a longer profile next week.

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