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Get to know the candidates vying to be the Gwich'in Tribal Council's next grand chief

After one term at the helm of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan will pass on her responsibilities as grand chief to one of two candidates in the upcoming Sept. 3 election: Kenny Smith or Richard John Blake.

The election will take place Sept. 3

Richard John Blake, left, and Kenny Smith are vying for grand chief in the Gwich'in Tribal Council's 2020 general elections. (Teetl'it Gwich'in Band Council/PDAC)

After one term at the helm of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan will pass on her responsibilities as grand chief to one of two candidates in the upcoming Sept. 3 election: Kenny Smith or Richard John Blake.

Greenland-Morgan announced earlier this year that she would not be seeking re-election, so she could instead focus on her family.

The incoming leader will have an important role to play in issues such as negotiating self-government, managing land and resources, reducing mental illness and addictions, improving employment opportunities, along with revitalizing language, culture and heritage. 

In the Gwich'in Tribal Council's 2019-2020 annual report, Greenland-Morgan left a message for the organization, people, and future leadership. 

"We will one day be self-governing and move away from the current systems and be operating in a system that is based on Gwich'in fundamentals rather than colonial methods," said Greenland-Morgan. 

"That continues to be my vision for our future. A healthy people first, a strong Gwich'in Government second."

The two hopefuls spoke with CBC News about what their priorities would be if elected, and how they would serve their communities and people. 

Kenny Smith

If elected, Kenny Smith said he would bring his experience in business management, along with a focus on education, culture, language and wealth creation.

Originally from Tetl'it Zheh (Fort McPherson), Smith is currently vice-chair of the Gwich'in Settlement Corporation. He has spent over 15 years in the mining industry, taking on roles in management and community engagement.

Capacity building and wealth creation is top of mind for Smith.

"We need to find ways to get people back to work. Getting training. Building our communities back up," he said. 

It is the responsibility of leadership, Smith said, to reduce roadblocks to employment by collaborating and partnering with councils, governments and industry. 

He said he believes entrepreneurial programs would help build a healthier economy. 

We need to find ways to get people back to work. Getting training. Building our communities back up.​​​- Kenny Smith

Smith was encouraged to run for grand chief because of his friends and family, but also because he was inspired by the initiative youth have shown. He wanted to support the "young people that are pursuing some of our traditional ways of life," he added.

One of Smith's key priorities is revitalizing language and culture. To meet this goal, he says he would like to support community-level initiatives that get people out on the land.

Building stronger relationships between leadership, schools and youth, he said, is needed to better understand the educational needs of each community and to deliver relevant traditional programming and training.

Smith is also mindful of the challenges involved in negotiating the self-government agreement, which has been identified as a key issue for the incoming leader.

"As a nation, we know we've been self-governing for thousands of years," Smith said. "There has been some conflict with some of the duties and responsibilities of the current form of government, which is largely based on the GNWT model." 

Moving forward, he hopes community engagement and realigning interests across the region will allow for a better path toward finalizing a self-government agreement.

Richard John Blake

Richard John Blake is a band councillor and elder representative for Tetl'it Zheh, the community where he's from.

According to his biography on the Teetl'it Gwich'in Band Council's website, "he lives at his bush camp at Husky River and he enjoys the time spent out there. It allows him to think and reflect on life and where we are going as Gwich'in people." He also has an interest in helping youth, it says.

Blake said he wants to "work as a people" and help make changes based on the issues and concerns people put forward. He said he believes in uniting Gwich'in people, while also listening to the individual concerns of members and communities. 

He is running for grand chief because he grew tired of the issues that came to light while working with the band council and believes he could represent Gwich'in people well on a bigger platform, he said.

I'd love to see people go on the land because that's where everything is so peaceful … [and] you learn everything … and start figuring out your life."- Richard John Blake

He wants people to know that he's "no different than they are."

"I'm down to earth," he said. "I don't want people to look at me, just because — if I was elected — [that] I'm above them."

Blake said he hesitates to make big promises because "until a person gets in there," it's difficult to find out what is actually accomplishable. 

He does, however, want everyone to be in good health and indicated a few ways he sees this happening.

"I'd love to see people go on the land because that's where everything is so peaceful … [and] you learn everything … and start figuring out your life," he said.

Blake would also like to strengthen the relationship between the Gwich'in Tribal Council and youth, but it's not something he wants to force on young people.

"When they want to decide, that's when it's going to happen," he said.

The management of land and resources is also important to Blake.

"It comes right down to all the communities, and everybody has to put their voice into it," he said.

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