The Gwich’in Tribal Council in the NWT has two new leaders.
Ken Smith from Fort McPherson is now the grand chief, taking over from Bobbi Jo Greenland-Morgan, while Inuvik’s Kristine McLeod replaces Jordan Peterson as deputy grand chief.
The two were sworn in at the council’s annual general meeting on Saturday. Cabin Radio spoke with Smith and McLeod about their plan to lead the NWT’s Gwich’in peoples.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Meaghan Brackenbury: What was the campaigning season like leading up to the actual election?
Kristine McLeod: The campaign was a really positive experience. It’s actually quite remarkable, with the overwhelming amount of support and encouragement. And it’s also really amazing to see how involved the Gwich’in participants want to be. I’m looking forward to continuing discussions with the people and hearing more of their ideas for a better future.
Ken Smith: It was a remarkable experience, reconnecting with our Gwich’in participants and their communities, as well as those [who] reside outside of the Gwich’in settlement area, [and] hearing the issues and opportunities that our people are seeing. I was truly able to experience a passion that other people have for our Gwich’in organizations and the future.
What was your reaction to winning?
Ken Smith: There was a variety of emotions, as one would expect. [My supporters and I] have had this goal during the last five months, and [for] all of that to [be realized] on Thursday night was certainly very overwhelming. Of course, for myself, my wife, our supporters and my family, we’re all very happy and thankful that the Gwich’in people decided to pursue our vision of where we would like to take the organization.
Kristine McLeod: To be honest, it didn’t start to sink in until we had the swearing-in ceremony two days after the election. And even now, two days into the job, it still hasn’t fully sunk in. It’s a completely humbling experience and feeling to know that so many of your fellow Gwich’in have the confidence in you to be the leader that you know you can be, and I’m forever thankful and grateful that they’ve given me the opportunity and this great honour.
What are some of the first things that you guys are tackling?
Kristine McLeod: This week we are having a briefing meeting with the outgoing executives, former Grand Chief Bobbi Jo Greenland-Morgan and former Deputy Grand Chief Jordan Peterson. We’ll be getting up to speed on the current affairs of the GTC. Next week, we are meeting with the GTC directors and staff so we can familiarize ourselves with the operations and the administration.
What are some of the biggest issues you are expecting to tackle now?
Ken Smith: There are different files here that we are working on. Personally, I need to exit my current employment with BHP, which is a mining company in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. When I return back in October, I will be working with our various departments to get up to speed on some of the detailed programs and services that we are delivering. [On top of that, there’s] the ongoing battle to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. We do have some discussions and deliberations regarding continued progress on our Gwich’in government. I think we also do have some ongoing relationship management with Canada and the GNWT that we need to undertake in the near future.
Your wins have come as the US Bureau of Land Management has opened up the Arctic Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. From where you guys stand now, how do you think that you might try to tackle this issue?
Ken Smith: We’re going to need to do this in partnership and unity with the other Gwich’in organizations, both in Yukon and Alaska, but most importantly through the Gwich’in Steering Committee. [We are] continuing our opposition against any development on the coast of Alaska, so that we protect the Porcupine Caribou for future generations.
Kristine McLeod: Not only is it essential, but it is our responsibility to our future generations that we continue to oppose the political and economic [threats] to the sacred calving grounds of the Porcupine Caribou.
What are you hoping to achieve in the next four years?
Kristine McLeod: At a very high level, my overall focus will be to build capacity within our Nation. That feeds in to ensuring the health, safety, happiness, and success of our people. We need to create those educational opportunities. We need to grow our businesses and our economic strength and nurture our language and our culture. By doing so, we can take our rightful place, leading the future of the North.
Ken Smith: I would like to see continued development to achieve levels of economic prosperity, while also promoting Gwich’in culture and language. I would also like to see advancements in the education and training area, particularly for our young people. And of course, the health and wellness focus, particularly the health and wellness our Elders, needs to continue to remain a priority for our Nation here the Northwest Territories.
Do you have anything that you want to say to all the Gwich’in constituents that you will be serving?
Ken Smith: I look forward to the work Kristine and myself will be undertaking with the board of directors of the Gwich’in Tribal Council over the next four years, and working to be very active in our Gwich’in communities with our participants so that we are present, active, and effectively communicating our goals, objectives, and results.
Kristine McLeod: We’re looking forward to being part of a great team here at the GTC, and we have a great team in place to build a strong, proud, and successful Gwich’in Nation.