The Gwich’in Tribal Council (GTC) is preparing for an upcoming election in September, in which a new Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief will be chosen.
There are two candidates in the running for each position this year. Richard J Blake and Ken Smith – both originally from Fort McPherson – are up for Grand Chief, while Kristine McLeod from Inuvik and Richard Nerysoo from Fort McPherson are vying for Deputy Grand Chief.
Neither Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan nor Jordan Peterson, the current Grand Chief and Deputy Grand Chief respectively, are running for re-election.
Mary Ann Villeneuve is running this year’s election after being appointed chief returning officer in June. This is her third time in the role.
Villeneuve said Covid-19 had made planning more difficult than usual, particularly making sure voters who prefer to vote on paper can still cast a ballot.
In Villeneuve’s estimation, Covid-19 will also provide a test of the candidates’ leadership.
“Coming into an election when there is a pandemic is very difficult,” she said, “and I think they will have a challenge but, as they say, we’re all in it together. And you have to move forward. You can’t go backwards.”
Each candidate has big plans for the GTC if successful.
Ken Smith is currently living in Saskatoon and works as a manager for BHP, though he states he is in the process of moving back to the NWT.
Ken Smith. Photo: Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada.
He’s a member of the Teetl’it Gwich’in Band Council, is currently the vice-chair of the Gwich’in Settlement Corporation, and has experience lobbying for the protection of the Porcupine Caribou herd – a sacred source of food and culture for the Gwich’in people.
Smith listed many different things he would like to do if elected. Maintaining self-governance and supporting communities who wish to develop their own models is at the top of his list.
“I would just like to have further dialogue with the communities as a nation, and collective discussions around where it is that we would like to go, such that we’re all pulling in the same direction and supporting each other as best as we can,” he said.
Smith’s fellow Grand Chief Candidate, Richard John Blake, is his cousin.
Blake is also a member of the Teetl’it Gwich’in Band Council and a councillor for both the band and the Elders’ Council, though he has stepped away from those roles until the election is over. He’s been a carpenter for most of his life.
Richard John Blake. Photo: Teetl’it Gwich’in Band
Blake’s platform is simple. “As a leader, I want all four bands … to work as one so we can work for our people,” he said.
He stressed that if elected, he doesn’t want Gwich’in people to see him as “above” them; instead he pledged to listen to their wants and needs, and make decisions that way.
Meanwhile, Deputy Grand Chief candidate Kristine McLeod wants to tackle three areas: increased support in education, supporting businesses and employment opportunities, and preserving language and culture.
She’s also running to set an example for her daughter, nieces, and other Gwich’in women. “I’d like to inspire Gwich’in women to follow their dreams,” she said.
Kristine McLeod. Photo: Jamie Stevenson Photography
McLeod is currently the vice-chair for the Izhii K’aiik’it Tat Gwich’in Society and chair of the Gwich’in Settlement Corporation. She lives in Yellowknife, where she works as a manager in the territorial Department of Finance.
The final candidate is Richard Nerysoo, a former premier of the NWT who has featured in politics at the community and territorial levels for decades.
Nerysoo has served as president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council and spent 16 years in the Legislative Assembly, including his term as premier.
He’s currently in Fort McPherson as the assigned negotiator for treaty negotiations with the federal government.
Richard Nerysoo as Gwich’in Tribal Council president-elect in 2008.
Nerysoo’s primary focus if elected Deputy Grand Chief will be building a collaborative relationship between Dene, Métis, and Inuvialuit communities.
“It’s not just simply about the Gwich’in,” he said. “It’s also about the Treaty Indians in our communities. It’s about the Métis that live in our communities and the intermarriages among peoples in our region and in our communities.”
Cabin Radio will provide in-depth coverage of each candidate’s platform in the coming weeks.
Election day is September 3, with polling stations in Aklavik, Fort McPherson, Inuvik, and Tsiigehtchic. An advance poll opens on August 27.
Any Gwich’in person is eligible to vote and can do so at the polling stations, online, over the phone, or by mail. If voters require a ballot to be sent to their home, they can contact Villeneuve at (867) 620-0099 or GTCElection2020@gmail.com.