Kelvin Kotchilea is one of four candidates running for the position of Monfwi MLA, recently vacated by Jackson Lafferty.
Lafferty, who served 16 years in the position, is expected to run for Tłı̨chǫ Grand Chief later this year. He resigned last month.
Kotchilea, a Tłı̨chǫ citizen who lives in Behchokǫ̀, works as a finance officer for the territorial government following a stint as a renewable resources officer.
He’s campaigning to create more opportunities for young people in Behchokǫ̀ , Gamètì, Wekweètì, and Whatì, and plans to advocate for more senior government positions in smaller communities, more access to sustenance harvesting, and support for language revitalization.
He would also like to see more land developed so people can build homes, and for economic diversification.
Cabin Radio has approached all four candidates in this month’s by-election for interviews. Polling day is July 27.
Listen to the full interview by downloading or streaming Cabin Radio’s Lunchtime News podcast.
This interview was recorded on July 7, 2021. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Sarah Pruys: Why did you decide to run?
Kelvin Kotchilea: I was a renewable resource officer for about eight years. It’s become a bit more culturally sensitive, especially with caribou bans. I recently graduated from a business administration and accounting program and, during that program, you learn about leadership and financial accounting. And there’s just the opportunity to work for my people and for my region, to give back from an academic perspective, and culturally.
Are there some other things you’ve done that make you confident you’re the best person for this job?
I guess what people don’t realize is I’m very relatable. When I left my community at the age of 17, I came back at age 19, with a post-secondary diploma for ENRTP (Environment and Natural Resources Technology Program). And during that time, there was no employment opportunity.
It took a while. There’s a person that retired and then an opportunity came available with [the Department of] Environment and Natural Resources for a renewable resource officer position. And even during that time, I was living with my parents for about two years, because of the lack of housing. There are not a whole lot of opportunities, especially for the young people that are coming back. I can relate to that, and that’s something that I would like to address.
Over time, people are seeing that their culture is being lost and it’s due to caribou bans, through languages. There are various government programs now – mentorship through Indigenous languages – and it’s something I’m going to start enrolling in myself this coming fall.
You mentioned a lack of opportunities for young people. What would you like to do to help create more opportunities for them?
Right now, you can see there are a lot of positions available within the GNWT. Most of those positions that are in Yellowknife require a certain level of skill and qualification. So there are people in the community that are getting that skill, but then there’s not that particular position in the communities. If Covid taught us anything, it’s that people can work remotely. And that’s something I’m going to push at that level of government – that there’s no more excuses of not giving the higher positions to the smaller communities. There’s no real senior management position and there’s always plateaus at that level. So for myself, a good example would be if I still was a renewable resource officer, I would only be an officer three, there wouldn’t be an opportunity for me to be in management or anything higher.
Because those positions don’t exist in Behchokǫ̀ ?
Yes. There’s not enough push for it to come to the communities.
You also talked about the loss of culture. Can you expand on what you’d like to see happen there, and what you’d push for if you were elected MLA?
With caribou it’s a bit tough, because we all have to acknowledge there is a decline in the caribou population. And then at the same time, it’s very unfortunate, but it is what it is. At this moment, there are people that are working and have the necessities to be out on the land. They can afford the assets that are part of the practice like snow machines, gas, the equipment, the firearms. And then there are people that don’t have those things, materials, that can’t go out and practise their culture. How do we create a balance so that everybody has that same opportunity?
For languages, the biggest part is we need more encouragement. There are a lot of people my age and younger that do struggle with the language itself. But when there’s no encouragement – there’s sometimes maybe shaming, laughter, bullying – nobody’s going to really want to pick up on that, if that’s how you feel. I can’t say that for everyone. But I know there are some people that have that sense.
Jackson Lafferty campaigned on improving housing conditions and larger infrastructure projects. What kinds of projects would you like to see happen over the next couple of years or maybe longer-term?
Housing is a huge issue for the fact that there are a lot of families living within family households. So there’s, like, two to three generations. Some people live in housing units that were probably built in the 80s. Why wasn’t there an initiative for people to enrol in a rent-to-own program to create independence?
And then there’s not enough land development for people to go out and get a mortgage to do it themselves. The issue that I ran into – this would have been about eight years ago now – is the communities are land-leased, not land-owned. So for a traditional bank, there wasn’t a way to work around it. But I believe now they have some kind of agreement in place for anyone that wants to use that as a route.
But again, there’s just no land development for people. So that’s something for sure at the infrastructure level to advocate for. If people own their own homes in the community, there’s less chance of people leaving the community, which is starting to take place.
And then for infrastructure projects, you can have some more buildings to rent to these government departments to create revenue.
We need to have a strategy of what we can offer the Northwest Territories and Canada. For example, Hay River, they they acted quickly on offering eggs, Polar Eggs, and Riverside Growers’ romaine lettuce. That’s innovative, that’s taking that initiative.
There’s something for sure that we can do here, but that’s where we need to have more people with more skills so we can have more diversity.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
I’d like to wish all the other candidates good luck. It’s not easy putting ourselves out there, especially when there’s public scrutiny tied in with it. And I just want to send a message to all the communities in the region to just keep it positive. You know, have a positive attitude to anybody that’s going to be coming to your house, sharing their ideas, telling you what they want to advocate for.
At the end of the day, it’s up to every individual. Go with your gut, your intuition, and you can’t go wrong. You won’t feel bad about following your natural instincts with who you believe is the best person for that position.