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Carcross/Tagish First Nation returns to elected chief

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation is without a chief. The top position, called Kha Shade Heni by the Tlingit group, has been vacant since Mark Wedge finished his term in early November.

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation is without a chief.

The top position, called Kha Shade Heni by the Tlingit group, has been vacant since Mark Wedge finished his term in early November.

And no one will be appointed to fill the position. Instead, the new boss will be elected.

That’s a big change for the First Nation. For more than a decade, the Kha Shade Heni’s appointment has been decided by the First Nation’s six clan leaders.

That’s left some members who are without a clan effectively disenfranchised.

But after protesters erected a barricade and locked out workers from the main government building for two days in January, the First Nation has agreed to hold an election.

It isn’t a completely new idea.

“We’ve come from full elections that split this First Nation apart,” said Danny Cresswell, the deputy Kha Shade Heni.

Before reinstating the clan structure, the First Nation held chief and council elections under the imposed Indian Act band system.

“A lot of younger people don’t remember it,” he said. “I was on the last ... council and we put the clan system in place. We were told to basically, the elders told us.”

Back then there was only a chief, council and band manager.

“It was ‘whoever gets in, rules,’” said Cresswell. “The chief and council could do whatever they wanted. They hired and fired people, decided who got jobs. They decided every single thing. It was basically six people running it all.

“There has been quite a bit of change since that time.”

Now under self-government, the First Nation has established policies, written legislation, created boards and struck committees.

Through that process a lot of power has been delegated out of the core leadership, Cresswell added.

Some citizens worry reverting back to elections will strip the First Nation of values and culture that the traditional clan system helped to uphold.

“Some people say it’s a step backwards,” said Cresswell. “But there are people who say we couldn’t even call it the clan system because we weren’t following it closely enough.

“We’re still evolving. And I don’t think it’s about us having really strict laws with each other, it’s about how we treat each other, how we move forward together and whatever forward means.

“We’ve come a long ways, but we still have a lot of stuff to do.”

Back in January, a constitutional review committee was struck. Its members included both protesters and government workers.

It offered several options to the community.

They could create a new, bigger government assembly, made up of more than 40 members.

They could call a full election for chief and council and scrap the clan system.

They could keep the clan system intact, but accommodate those in the community who do not have a clan.

Or they could choose to elect the chief, but continue to appoint councillors by clan.

The First Nation chose the last option and a resolution was passed in early December to change the constitution.

A new executive council was appointed by the six clans.

Cresswell and George Shepherd are the only incumbents.

Cresswell was appointed Deputy Kha Shade Heni by consensus. He’s in charge until a new leader is elected.

If all goes as planned, people will be able to put their name forward to run for chief in February, with an election April 1.

And while the election call satisfies a major concern brought up by last January’s protests, there are still issues with the clan system that need to be addressed, Cresswell added.

There are six clans of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. They range in size from six to more than 300 members. But they all have equal voice on the executive council.

For various reasons, many people in the community do not have a clan.

Avenues for these people, coined “children of the community,” to have a say on the council have been put in place, but all of these alternatives seem ridden with problems.

The First Nation also needs to reinstate its justice committee, which has the final say in grievances - including those criticizing the government and its laws. It was another concern brought up in January’s protests.

The First Nation also hopes to find a better way to maintain its citizen lists and communicate to its members - especially those who don’t have a clan or don’t attend clan meetings.

And it’s considering setting some guidelines for internal clan management.

“We’re still growing, evolving and getting better every year,” said Cresswell.

When asked if he’d be putting his name forward for chief in February, he said only that “it’s possible.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at