Vuntut Gwitchin chief to call it quits

After one year, Norma Kassi is stepping down as chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation government. On Wednesday afternoon, chief and council announced they will call an election towards the end of next month.

After one year, Norma Kassi is stepping down as chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation government.

On Wednesday afternoon, chief and council announced they will call an election towards the end of next month, after serving one-quarter of their scheduled term.

Later that day, Kassi confirmed she would not run for re-election.

“I think I’ve done the very best I could,” she said. “I’ve done what I could with the support that I had. I made the government really strong and it’s in really good shape for the next leaders.

“But I want to step aside humbly and accept the fact that there’s some people that are not very happy, and move forward. I don’t want to hang onto something and get in people’s way if they want to progress.”

The decision to call an election was prompted by the resignation of councillor and deputy chief Lorraine Netro, who submitted her letter of resignation on Monday.

Netro refused to comment on the reasons of her resignation except to say it was a difficult decision, but she is leaving for personal reasons.

“My responsibility is to the community,” she said. “I have high respect for my community. I have high respect for my people. I don’t want to play this out in the media.”

Only months into the position, Brandon Kyikavichik left his position as councillor and, according to the First Nation’s government release this week, a third councillor, Katherine Nukon is expected to retire after Christmas.

That would leave only councillor Margaret Smith and Kassi, and the government would lack a quorum.

In the November 2010 election, only the chief was elected. Netro and Smith were acclaimed, Kyikavichik and Nukon were later appointed.

“We believe that this would be in the best interest of the people,” said Kassi of the imminent election. “In doing so, it is our wish to re-establish certainty and confidence in the Vuntut Gwitchin government, not only with our citizens, but also with other orders of government.”

Throughout the past year, Kassi embarked on reviewing the territory’s northernmost government, tasking each department to draft a strategic plan and corresponding budget.

“We tested the system,” she said. “We looked at it; we assessed it. We streamlined all the departments and the government is very strong.”

It was the difficulty of communicating that work to the community that led to problems, said Kassi.

“Of course there’s misunderstanding, and there’s ignorance and you have to work with all those fears of change and that kind of thing,” she added. “If previous leadership and people want to be able to be a part of this whole governing system then I guess we all have to work together.”

The current system and constitution that grew out of the Indian Act is not working, said Kassi.

She’s already struck a constitutional review committee that will report back to the community at the annual general assembly in August, or at a special assembly before then.

“Our constitution is not fitting to our self-government and we’re going to have to really revisit that to make sure we create a government that’s transparent and accountable to all our people,” she said, noting that all of the First Nation’s more than 900 citizens should be treated equally – whether they live in Old Crow or not.

“Before the Indian Act came in, there were appointment systems based on the level of skill that a chief or a leader can provide for our people. Maybe right now, you need very highly educated, highly technical and highly business-minded individuals to be able to run a self-government.”

For Kassi, the rest of her tenure will be spent establishing the community’s independent learning centre and working with 25 youth from the community who have been “pushed” out of the public education system, she said.

Working with youth will always to be a personal priority, she added.

“We are facing so many changes. With climate change in our village, our food source is dissipating. Our culture and our language are also in jeopardy. We really need to take a look at ourselves as a society and take it very seriously and make it better. Make it inviting for our young people to be able to say, ‘Yeah. Yeah, I am proud to be Vuntut Gwich’in.’”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at