Friends, politicians pay tribute to former Yukon chief Joe Linklater, dead at 54

Joe Linklater, a prominent former chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, is being remembered as a trailblazing leader who was known and respected by people across the political spectrum.

Linklater chaired international Gwich'in Council, served as chief of Vuntut Gwitchin for over a decade

Joe Linklater at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Nuuk, Greenland, in 2011. Linklater was a former chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and a prominent figure in Yukon up until his passing. (Amy Amos)

Joe Linklater, a prominent former chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, is being remembered as a trailblazing leader who was known and respected by people across the political spectrum. 

Linklater died suddenly on Sunday in Old Crow, Yukon, at the age of 54.

He served as chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin from 1998 to 2010, and again from 2012 to 2014. He most recently served as the First Nation's executive director in Old Crow.

Linklater played a key role in many intergovernmental negotiations between Yukon and Canada. He also sat on the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board and chaired the Gwich'in Council International, where he played an important role in the Vuntut Gwitchin's ongoing battle to keep oil exploration out of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.

'Known far and wide'

A statement from Linklater's family on Monday said he was "well known far and wide not only in his beloved village of Old Crow, but throughout the Yukon and across the circumpolar world."

The statement also described him as "an incredible storyteller with a legendary sense of humour and biting wit." 

There is no word yet on the cause of Linklater's death.

Many prominent Yukon politicians, including Premier Sandy Silver and former premier Darrell Pasloski, took to Twitter to share their condolences.

Other Yukon politicians shared their thoughts about Linklater on social media, including MLAs Ranj Pillai, and Pauline Frost, who represents the Vuntut Gwitchin riding.

"He brought so much integrity to our community, he showed true leadership when we needed one, guidance during difficult times, and most of all, he never gave up hope for a better future for our children," Frost wrote on Facebook.

NDP leader Liz Hanson echoed Pasloski in calling Linklater a "visionary leader."

"Yukon and the circumpolar world are better for his many contributions," Hanson wrote.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde also issued a statement on Monday, calling Linklater "a strong voice for First Nations in the Yukon and across the country."

Bellegarde recalled visiting Old Crow and spending time with Linklater, and seeing how "well-liked and respected" he was. 

Kluane Adamek, interim Yukon regional chief for the Assembly of First Nations, also released a statement Monday morning, saying she was "heartbroken."

"Joe inspired me, as he did many young people, to strive to work for our communities, and for our people. We have all lost a trailblazer and a dear friend," the statement reads.

Linklater speaking at a Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly in Dawson City in 2001. (CBC)

The Grand Chief of the Gwich'in Tribal Council, Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, said she knew and worked with Linklater for many years, and called him "definitely one of the strongest leaders Gwich'in have known."

"He wasn't just a good speaker, but he was a real go-getter. He knew how to get things done," she said.

'Forced' into politics

In a 2011 interview for "Mapping the Way", a government and First Nations initiative to record the history of Yukon's land claims, Linklater described how he first became involved in politics. He said he felt "sort of forced" into it by his convictions, and his upbringing.

"I often tell people that part of the reason that I got into politics is that I just couldn't keep my mouth shut," he said.

"Most Vuntut Gwitchin in Old Crow that are part of this whole process, they'll say the same thing, that they were raised the same way – that if they're going to be involved in something, then they're going to be involved in it in a big way."

Linklater's family has started an online fundraising campaign to cover family travel costs for the funeral. It will be held in Old Crow on Friday. (Leonard Linklater/CBC)

Linklater argued that Yukon's self-government agreements were "for all people," not just First Nations. He said he felt fortunate to play a role as Vuntut Gwitchin chief.

"To be part of that history, to establish and to help write that history, it's an amazing feeling. And I just hope more young Vuntut Gwitchin feel the same way and they want to get involved and carry us into the future," he said.

A funeral for Linklater will be held on Friday at 2 p.m. in Old Crow. His family has started an online fundraising campaign to help cover funeral and travel costs for his large extended family.

A memorial is also planned for Whitehorse at a later date that is still to be determined.