The new chief of the Vuntut Gwitch’in First Nation is listening.
The First Nation of Old Crow voted in Norma Kassi – the community’s former MLA, and mother to their current one – with a 25-vote lead over runner-up Garry Njootli and just over double the votes of current deputy chief Kenny Tetlichi.
“First and foremost I’m going to make it fundamental that we listen to our people and that they be the driving force on every issue possible,” says Kassi who officially takes over in the second week of January.
It is a promise it seems chief-elect Kassi is already starting to fulfill.
When Chief Joe Linklater announced he would not be running again and rumours of Kassi’s intents to do so began spreading, so too did a sentiment from the community that she was too distant, having lived outside of Old Crow for too long.
Kassi has really worked to get the people to look at her as a viable candidate, says Linklater, noting that since the general assembly in September she has spent most of her time in Old Crow and has committed to live there.
The focus has now shifted to future work, he says.
That work probably won’t include prohibition, a law Kassi once advocated as MLA.
“The young people are really wanting to look at something else,” she says. “In the meantime, as leadership, we have to make sure our people are well prepared and empowered and strong and self-sufficient before we take that step. Make sure that we have a really good land-based treatment facility in place, that we have our own trained people to be able to implement the healing aspect of the community. I think those are going to be our priorities as we move ahead.”
The priority is to facilitate the wishes of the community and to protect the community’s resources and homelands as they face the need to adapt to the effects of climate change.
Diminishing caribou herds and drying lakes in the Old Crow Flats have convinced the Vuntut Gwitch’in people of the urgent need to do this.
“I’m happy, excited and strong coming into this huge position as chief,” she says. “And, on the other hand, there’s a lot of feelings about taking on this huge responsibility.”
The responsibility is starting to ebb, says Linklater of his remaining time as chief.
“But there is still a lot of work,” he says, indirectly talking about the day-long meetings with the new chief and council that seem to have no clear end in sight.
Two more councillors need to be appointed (to join Lorraine Netro and Margaret Smith who were just acclaimed), the deputy chief needs to be appointed and the elders’ council needs a few more members.
“We have to go through the transition period first so people have a good grasp on the situation and problems they will face,” he says. “It’s up to the new chief and council to manage their affairs and implement their vision. I am trying not to overwhelm them.”
However, the administration and political aspects to the First Nation are separate, so while council will change and decide what to do next, Kassi will have the same staff to work with.
And that includes her son, Darius Elias who has already established a campaign, with no competition, to be re-elected as MLA.
Relationships must be strengthened, which will cause a ripple effect that will spread throughout the community and out to other First Nation governments, she says.
The Vuntut Gwitch’in have a lot of skills to offer and a lot to learn from sharing, she says.
Once the transition period is over, Kassi will look to her elders and community to decide if the First Nation will rejoin the Council of Yukon First Nations, she says.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at