Teslin Tlingit Council selects new leader

Carl Sidney is the new chief executive officer of the Teslin Tlingit Council. But the community feast on Wednesday felt more like a celebration for Peter Johnston, their former leader, who lost by five votes to Sidney on Tuesday.

Carl Sidney is the new chief executive officer of the Teslin Tlingit Council.

But the community feast on Wednesday felt more like a celebration for Peter Johnston, their former leader, who lost by five votes to Sidney on Tuesday.

The voting process was grueling. There were four candidates running for the top spot. Voting took five rounds of ballots and lasted until 10:30 p.m.

The Teslin Tlingit Council is the only First Nation in the territory that still picks its leader based on a traditional clan-system model.

There are five clans within the First Nation, ranging from 25 to more than 150 members.

Each clan selects five representatives to sit on a general council. Those 25 pick the chief. If that decision cannot be made by consensus, it goes to a vote. If none of the candidates take a majority of 60 per cent of the votes, another ballot is held with the candidate who received the least amount of votes removed.

On Tuesday night, the first two rounds saw Johnston in the lead, with Sidney facing elimination.

In the third round, Tod Smarch’s support went to Sidney and, in the fourth, the same happened with Richard Sidney’s votes.

In the fifth round, Carl Sidney finished with 15 votes, ahead of Johnston’s 10.

“For the past two terms, ever since I’ve been running for chief, that’s the way we’ve been doing it, but we’re still figuring it out,” said Johnston about the whole process. “Next term, 2016, will probably be a vote.”

Despite serving only one four-year term as chief executive officer, Johnston, 40, has been a part of the First Nation’s leadership for the past 12 years, first as an executive councillor for his clan, than as deputy chief.

It was clear at the feast on Wednesday that he will be missed.

All executive council members (one is appointed from each clan) and clan leaders (usually the eldest male) took turns giving their thanks and heartfelt goodbyes to their former leader. Many in the crowd of nearly 200 fought back tears.

Johnston is happy with what he’s accomplished, he said.

“We’re one of the most progressive First Nations in Canada, but people kick us for that – our own people,” he said. “They say we’re only worried about getting to the top of the ladder. That’s not what we’re worried about. It’s not about us trying to be better than anybody else. We’re trying to lift the bar of achievement so our people know this is where we have to go now.”

Giving an example, the father of four is proud to say he introduced evictions to the First Nation.

“It’s the first time in our history that our people are paying rent,” he said. “I was never arrogant or ignorant … but was able to be open and honest. Hard on the issues, soft on the people.”

Throughout his tenure, Johnston oversaw changes to the First Nation’s citizenship code to address the nearly 200 members who don’t belong to a clan. His government restarted land-use planning for their region and can boast signing two different agreements, with two different mining companies.

Johnston made history as leader when he signed the First Nation’s administration of justice agreement, making the Teslin-based council the first aboriginal group in Canada to take on the law for their own citizens, including plans to establish traditional courts and clan justice legislation.

Johnston has fostered the First Nation’s growing business empire, which now touts 18 companies, and he takes credit for helping reconnect the five clans during his time as leader.

“It’s the first time in a long time we actually have a full functioning government with all clans participating,” he said. “We’re a team. It was a great honour. It’s been a pleasure.”

While Johnston waded through the crowds of well-wishers and tearful supporters, Sidney had disappeared.

“Check by the water,” one citizen said. “He’s always by the water.”

Sure enough, standing alone on the bank of Teslin Lake at the far end of Brooks Brook, was Sidney.

The 57-year-old was holding his squawking cellphone in one hand and a cigarette butt in the other. The Big Salmon Range towered behind him and the sound of drums accompanying stick gambling games echoed from across the field.

“See the beaver?” Sidney asked, nodding his head over to the ripples in the otherwise glass-top water. It was all he needed to start describing the lake; its size and how it snakes from here, all the way up and around far-distant mountains.

Sidney grew up on the land, and he’s proud of it.

It’s something he wants for the future of his First Nation.

An on-the-land curriculum for school-aged citizens is a priority, he said.

Sidney, who ran for the Liberal party in last fall’s territorial election, is also a senior member of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, co-chair of the Yukon River Inter-tribal Watershed Council and is a technician for the National Chiefs Committee on Fisheries.

He plans on refocusing his people, and the First Nation as a whole, on traditional life.

“I’m going to be a stay-at-home chief,” he said. “I want to subsidize the trappers and give them assistance so they can get back out on the land and feel proud of themselves and their accomplishments.

“After we finish that, then we’ll start moving forward to looking at businesses and all that other stuff. We want to heal our community and we want to be healthy and know what we’re doing in the future before we start getting into businesses because the businesses would never make it if we’re unhealthy.”

Employment is also a major priority for the new leader, who feels the self-governing council has been elbowing out its own people because they do not have degrees or certificates, he said.

“They don’t even get a job interview. We want to make it so they have access to the jobs,” he said. “Whatever they’re lacking, we can help them gain those certificates and diplomas and all those other things. We realize that our people are intelligent people. We want to be able to make employment for them so that they can become directors and managers and future leaders.”

Sidney also plans to change the First Nation’s name from the Teslin Tlingit Council to the Teslin Tlingit Government.

“We’re a government that wants to be recognized as a government,” he said.

Incumbents Sandy Smarch, Blair Hogan, Duane Gastan’t Aucoin and Alex Oakley were all reappointed to the executive council for their clans, along with newcomers Bev Morris and Winnie Peterson. Peterson was appointed by the elders council to sit as the executive elder.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at