Elizabeth Staples, on Fish Lake ridge during a fall hiking trip, is the new caribou coordinator for the Vuntut Gwitchin Government. (Submitted)

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation has a new caribou coordinator

It’s the first time someone has held the position in roughly 10 years

The battle over preserving the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has heated up in the last year. Science has been done, bills to see it off limits to development have been introduced, advocacy has erupted and strong words have flown, both North of 60 and in Washington, D.C.

With that, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, which has consistently played a part in safeguarding the Porcupine caribou herd — now threatened by potential oil and gas drilling in the refuge — has made a move in order to better navigate the multiple moving parts and issues that have a propensity to flare up.

It’s hired a caribou coordinator, a position the First Nation has been without for roughly 10 years.

“My role is ensuring that Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation continues to be leaders in this work and assisting and elevating their voices,” said Elizabeth Staples, who was hired late last month.

Her file is specific to the refuge, the interests for the First Nation being the Porcupine caribou, a cultural linchpin of the Gwich’in people.

“Everybody here have been putting their hearts and souls into it already, but of course there’s other priorities for them as well,” said Staples, referring to other tasks expected of Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm and Deputy Chief Cheryl Charlie.

Tizya-Tramm describes Staples’ position as an “opposable thumb,” adding that she will help advance years of advocacy work by Vuntut Gwitchin.

“The real point of this is she’s going to have an overarching view of the chessboard. She’s gonna be that zipper that pulls things together, but this will always be done on the mandate of our community and our nation. She’s a wonderful addition.”

There are many moving parts, arguably too many for any one person to manage.

The draft environmental impact statement (EIS), which was released by the American government in December, started the work of opening up the refuge to development, a result of a provision baked into the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017. A final EIS is expected this summer, reportedly.

Plus, there’s the looming presidential election next year.

“I need to stay on top of everything that’s going on,” Staples said. “Things move so quickly. Keeping close communication with the organizations that we work with in Washington, D.C. and Alaska, making sure that we’re represented at any meetings that are occurring.”

Staples was in Washington during her first week on the job. As part of her time there, she attended a committee hearing, where a bill that seeks to protect ANWR passed a vote (it’s slated to arrive at the House of Representatives sometime this summer, where it will undergo another vote. If it passes, it would move to the Senate.) That, too, is another issue requiring a lot of attention.

The key to Staples’ role, Tizya-Tramm said, is to hold all of these pieces together and be the “mainframe, a repository of information of strategies of communication.”

“What’s really important when we work with our partners is that it’s always the Gwich’in voice first, that certain groups don’t take our cause and propel it on their mandate. That we work together.”

Those groups include federal, territorial and state governments, hunting and environmental organizations, etcetera.

Staples has held an interest for the Porcupine caribou herd since a young age, she said, first seeing them on a television program. She’s always kept them “on the side of her desk,” she said, noting that she dedicated some of her university studies to them.

“I’ve always been super passionate about the herd, have always dreamed about actually seeing them and I love the North.

“I was amazed. (They’re) really amazing and beautiful and I couldn’t believe something like that existed in Canada.”

She’s currently working remotely from Vancouver.

Tizya-Tramm said there could be an opportunity for Staples to relocate eventually, but that depends on the housing stock.

Staples is on a one-year contract.

“It’s so important to be involved and be part of this and to really raise the voices of the people that are gonna be impacted directly,” she said.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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