Former Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Joe Linklater died at 54 April 8. (Jacqueline Ronson/Yukon News file)

UPDATED: Former Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation Chief Joe Linklater dead at 54

Linklater, an outspoken Gwich’in leader, died in Old Crow April 8. His funeral is April 13

Former long-serving Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation chief Joe Linklater, who led the Yukon First Nation through its early years of self-governance and was a fierce advocate for Gwich’in interests, has died.

Linklater passed away suddenly in Old Crow April 8. He was 54.

The youngest of nine children, Linklater was born in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, on Jan. 29, 1964. The family lived in town but spent the summers out at fish camp, Linklater’s brother, Leonard, told the News, where they absorbed stories and teachings from their grandparents, aunties and uncles.

The family later moved to Whitehorse but those summertime teachings, as well as his natural gift as a storyteller, would serve Linklater well when he moved to Old Crow and was appointed to council in 1997. The elders saw his potential and encouraged him to run for chief. Linklater was elected in November 1998, and would go on to hold the position for four terms in a row until 2010. He served a fifth term as chief from 2012 to 2014.

Most recently, Linklater was working as VGFN’s executive director and also serving as a board member of Gwich’in Council International, an organization he had previously chaired. He was also previously a board member of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation and the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board.

“Whenever I thought of Joe, I thought, ‘He’s all work,’” Leonard said, adding that his brother was driven by a love for his people and desire to see them thrive.

“Often, in the evenings, you could go by the First Nation office and you’ll see a light on in his office, or you’ll come to his home and you’ll see him working at his computer.”

Among the causes Linklater championed were First Nations self-governance, ensuring a future for the people of Old Crow through education and economic development, and the protection of the Porcupine caribou herd, whose calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, considered sacred by Gwich’in, are under threat from proposed drilling.

In a press release, VGFN called Linklater “a bright light and a source of positivity for the Vuntut Gwitchin, and for many, many more across the entire world.”

“It is in fact, the most amazing thing about him, that even though he was such a prolific leader and naturally talented person, he was also kind and generous and brought happiness to the people around him,” the statement said. “He will be sorely missed but we must all remember his resolve; he never gave up and he was unafraid to face grief and other obstacles with strength and courage. We should all (honour) him by doing the same.”

Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan described Linklater was “one of the strongest leaders I’ve had the privilege of knowing,” but also one with a great sense of humour and bright smile.

“He demonstrated Gwich’in values, respect for people…. He really loved his people and he was very strong and educated and I think he was a very intelligent person and everything he did, he always thought of the long-term impacts on the Gwich’in,” ,” she said in an interview April 9.

That sentiment was echoed in numerous tributes posted online as word of Linklater’s death spread. Among them was a Facebook posts by Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill, who grew up with Linklater in Inuvik.

“I’m still in shock and can’t believe it’s really true. The last time I saw him he made us laugh so much my stomach hurt. That was pure Joe,” Bill wrote.

“I will miss you old friend.”

Assembly of First Nations Yukon Regional Chief Kluane Adamek also posted a message to Facebook saying she was “heartbroken” by the news.

“Joe inspired me, as he did many young people, to strive to work for our communities, and for our people,” Adamek wrote. “We have all lost a trailblazer and a dear friend. Joe championed education as a tool for exercising our rights and advancing a bright future…. I am confident that this vision, and the legacy he leaves us, will continue to guide us on the path he and so many others have set for us.”

Yukon politicians including Premier Sandy Silver, MP Larry Bagnell, former Premier Darrell Pasloski and former MLA Darius Elias have also offered their condolences, and Linklater received a brief tribute in the House April 9.

On the rare occasion that he wasn’t working, Linklater could be found at home in Old Crow reading or diving into his extensive DVD collection, Leonard said — The Simpsons was a particular favourite of Linklater’s because “it had a quirky take on life and he could appreciate that.”

Linklater also loved doting on his numerous nieces and nephews and “poured the world into them,” Leonard said, adding Linklater was always looking forward and wanted to ensure the future would be in good hands by creating a generation of young leaders to continue carrying the torch.

“I think people should just hug their kids closer, think of the future that they want to have,” Leonard said. “It’d be a good way to honour his memory.”

Linklater is survived by his sisters Clara, Kathryn, Donna and Susie, his brothers Charles and Leonard, and a number of nieces, nephews and cousins. His funeral will be held in Old Crow on April 13 at 2 p.m., with a memorial to be held in Whitehorse at a later date.

Linklater’s family has set up a GoFundMe campaign to help cover funeral expenses.

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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