Big ambitions for little Burwash

Math'ieya (Mu-thee-ya) Alatini, 38, is the new chief of Kluane First Nation. ot only did she wallop incumbent Wilfred Sheldon during last week's elections - she garnered 65 votes, over his 30.

Math’ieya (Mu-thee-ya) Alatini, 38, is the new chief of Kluane First Nation.

Not only did she wallop incumbent Wilfred Sheldon during last week’s elections – she garnered 65 votes, over his 30 – but she did so from her home in North Vancouver – a long way from tiny Burwash Landing.

Forget yard signs and banners. Alatini’s key campaign instrument was her Apple laptop.

With it, she videorecorded speeches, circulated pamphlets and stirred up discussions about what’s wrong with the tiny, understaffed First Nation and how to fix it.

“Right now, KFN is experiencing high staff turnover, and a lot of that is due to an unhappy work environment,” she said in one video. “People don’t want to stay where they’re not happy. I’d like to see everybody working as a team, towards one cohesive goal.”

Fine sentiments, but more easily said than done. Thankfully, Alatini enters the job with more than a can-do attitude. She also has plenty of relevant job experience.

She’s spent the past six years working for Indian and Northern Affairs Canada. During that time, she managed a $400-million infrastructure portfolio for British Columbia’s First Nations and, more recently, worked as a funding services officer.

That all means she ought to be adept at opening up Ottawa’s cash spigot for the First Nation. And she knows a thing about saving, too, having sat on the First Nation’s investment committee since 2003.

Not all of Burwash’s residents are online, so Alatini campaigned for elders’ votes by phone.

“I’d phone and chat and they’d tell me all their concerns. A lot of it is just, ‘We don’t hear from anybody. Nobody talks to us.’”

Whoever ends up filling the First Nation’s vacated job of communications officer will find a tall to-do list awaiting him or her. Alatini envisions an up-to-date website for the First Nation, along with biweekly newsletters sent by e-mail to members.

An updated mailing list of members is also important, as “there were still a lot of ballots that went out to the wrong addresses,” said Alatini.

She also hopes to see the new elder and youth councillors, whose seats have often sat vacant over past years, playing a bigger role in shaping policy.

And she expects the First Nation’s rules to actually be followed. On her campaign’s Facebook page, she alleged the First Nation hasn’t always put tenders out for bid when it should have. “KFN has a good tendering policy – it just needs to be enforced,” she wrote.

Alatini ran in the previous election. As she tells it, “I had lost because our mail didn’t come for two weeks.

“Our election polls closed on a Thursday, and Burwash only gets mail on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. So on Friday, all the ballots came in, but they didn’t count because all the polls were closed.”

While only slightly more than half of the First Nation’s 180 eligible voters cast a ballot, this is considered a record turnout in Kluane. “This time, there were a lot more people who wanted to see change,” said Alatini.

“We’re five years into our agreement – six years in April. And we haven’t progressed as much as we should have. People really want to see the government functioning as a government.”

That’s hard to realize when entire departments are vacant. Public works is well-staffed, but the departments of heritage and governance are currently empty, said Alatini.

She sees the heritage department potentially having a “huge impact” on language preservation and work with Parks Canada, to ensure the First Nation’s presence is felt in Kluane National Park.

The governance department, meanwhile, is responsible to reviewing bylaws, constitutional changes and the election code, as well as financial negotiations with Ottawa. Those responsibilities are also “huge,” said Alatini.

“We’re a self-governing First Nation and we don’t have a governance department. That’s a huge gap.”

There are financial messes waiting to be cleaned up, too. Kluane is one of two First Nations – Liard First Nation is the other – that hasn’t met its reporting requirements to Ottawa to explain how it spent nearly $1.7 million in federal housing money.

“The new finance director has put that as a top priority,” said Alatini.

She’s not afraid to test controversial ideas. She’s toying with the idea of replicating the Nisga’a First Nation of British Columbia’s experiment in giving members freehold title to homes. “That’s an option for us,” she said.

And Alatini sees a bright future in the First Nation’s recent acquisition of the Burwash Landing Resort. She worked for Aboriginal Tourism BC before moving on to the federal government, so she’s familiar with promoting First Nation tourist ventures to international markets.

The First Nation appointed a new board to manage its economic development holdings this month, and Alatini wants to see it kept free of political interference.

“We’re a small community,” she said. “Keeping those distinct would really be in our best interest.”

Like her predecessor, Alatini plans to keep pushing for the popular, but unlikely, goal of having a new school located in Burwash Landing. Many residents remain unhappy that their children have to ride the bus 19 kilometres to Destruction Bay.

Premier Dennis Fentie has, in past comments, made it clear he’s not interested in giving Burwash its own school. But Alatini plans to pursue the matter.

“I think we’ll be meeting shortly after I get up there,” she said. “I’ll just have to leave it at that. There’s some briefings I have to go through before.”

Alatini spent her childhood in the bush with her parents, who lived in an old cabin on the lake near Burwash. Her father trapped lynx and coyotes while studying to become an architect.

At age 10, her family relocated to Victoria, where Alatini’s mother studied at university, and later to Whitehorse.

Alatini attended Christ the King Elementary and FH Collins High. After graduating, she returned to Victoria to complete a bachelor of commerce degree.

But she’s spent “pretty much every summer” in Burwash, save for a few years since 2001, when she moved to Vancouver.

Now she’s in the midst of moving her family, which includes her husband, an eight-year-old daughter and four-year-old son, from the big city to little Burwash. The daughter, especially, will have plenty to adjust to: she’s moving from a school of 600 to a community of 80.

And she won’t be studying French any longer.

“She’ll be taking Southern Tutchone now,” said Alatini.

But Burwash looks bright to both children for one reason. “They’re superexcited because they get to have a dog.”

The family hopes to be in town for the swearing-in ceremony this Sunday.

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