Peter Johnston is the new chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council.
The 36-year-old won the small First Nation’s leadership on February 18, beating out incumbent Eric Morris, and Richard Sidney, a former chief.
Impressive. But leadership does run in the family. Johnston’s father served as chief for almost 15 years.
“I guess it’s in my blood,” he says with a laugh.
And he has no lack of experience. Johnston has sat on the executive council for nine years. Indeed, this isn’t the first time he’s been chief.
He took on the job on an interim basis in March of 2005. But squabbling soon ensued over the rules by which he was chosen.
So, to avoid controversy, he stepped down 10 months later, in January of 2006.
Teslin’s chief is selected by 25 elected councillors. This wasn’t democratic enough, some people felt.
So the rules changed. The elders’ council was given a say. Public meetings were held.
Meanwhile, Johnston soon became deputy chief, a job he held for two years until his new appointment.
His term lasts until 2012.
Prior to becoming a councillor, Johnston didn’t think much about First Nation politics. Then he started to have children – he now has three, including a daughter born on January 8 – and started to think more about the community in which they would be raised.
Johnston was a village truck driver before he joined the executive council. He graduated from FH Collins High School in Whitehorse, although he remembers he never enjoyed school much.
Now he spends a lot of time trying to push forward the government’s education reform project, as co-chair of the First Nations education advisory committee.
Through the seemingly endless piles of reports and strategies produced by the reform project, Johnston hopes to one day see more aboriginal youth stay in school.
Finish school and get a good job, Johnston tells students.
Teslin Tlingit, which has about 500 beneficiaries, is in the enviable position of having too many jobs to know what to do with.
The First Nation has its fingers in about 10 Whitehorse businesses, including a Coca-Cola distributor, a photocopier dealership, a furniture store and part of the Yukon Inn. Johnston would like to see more beneficiaries work for these companies.
The little First Nation also hopes to take on important government jobs. It has ambitious plans, for example, to take over administration of parts of the justice system.
It currently operates its Peacemaker program, which diverts beneficiaries charged with crimes from the courts to be dealt with by their clan members, rather than “toss you in the clink, see you in 18 months.”
More justice powers are eventually to be downloaded. But, as is often the case with the federal government, such negotiations are taking far longer than expected, said Johnston.
If these are big duties for a small First Nation, simple decisions are further complicated by clans.
Teslin Tlingit has five of them, and each is to receive equal representation in council operations – not always easy, when some clans may only have about 25 members, many of whom are getting on in years.
Then there’s the alienation felt by some beneficiaries who don’t buy into First Nation governance.
“We have to get people involved in the process here,” said Johnston.
But Johnston sees more than big problems. There are also plenty of little solutions to improve the First Nation’s efficiency. For example, he has ideas about how to save money by purchasing goods, like paper, in bulk and storing them in town, rather than having small units shipped in from Whitehorse.
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