Peter Johnston looks to re-invigorate the Council of Yukon First Nations

Peter Johnston, acclaimed this week as the next grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, says he wants to bring "pride and determination" back to the organization.

'I think I have an incredible opportunity to make some changes,' says next grand chief

Peter Johnston, former chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council, was acclaimed as the next grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, succeeding Ruth Massie. He'll be sworn in later this month. (Sandi Coleman/CBC)

Peter Johnston, acclaimed this week to lead the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) as its next grand chief, says he's determined to keep the organization a relevant and powerful political force in the territory.

"In some cases, I think the Council has just been existing to exist, if you will, and I think we've kind of lost the focus of what it was meant to be," he told Sandi Coleman on CBC's A New Day.

"I think I have an incredible opportunity to make some changes, to bring some of that pride and determination back to the organization."

It's sad to see that some people would like to leave and mothball it- Peter Johnston

The Council of Yukon First Nations traces its roots in the Yukon Native Brotherhood, which formed in the late 1960s and spurred a movement to secure land claims for the territory's First Nations. The Council of Yukon Indians was an offshoot that then evolved into CYFN. 

Along the way, an Umbrella Final Agreement was signed and self-government agreements followed for most of the territory's First Nations.

Johnston acknowledges that since then, some people have questioned the need for an umbrella organization such as CYFN. Several Yukon First Nations, including the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Vuntut Gwichin First Nation, are not even members.

"A lot of cases, those Nations are far down the road [of self-government] and they feel that maybe CYFN is not going to help, but more hinder their progress.

"It's sad to see that some people would like to leave and mothball it, and put it away," he said.

'We've come a long way'

Johnston says he's a firm believer in collective action, and building relationships. He says he grew up at a time when Yukon First Nations were finding their voice and learning to work together to move ahead.

Yukon aboriginal high school grads in June, 2015. There were 132 that year, an all-time high. Johnston has said education and engaging First Nations youth should be priorities for CYFN. 'It's all about the future generations.' (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Johnston said that provided a foundation for his politics, but his passion to lead was fuelled by his family.

"The lights went on when I became a father.

"To be a First Nations person in 2016 is a pretty incredible thing. I think if you go back 40 years ago, it was not necessarily viewed as being cool, if you will. So I think we've come a long way."

​He believes CYFN still has a role to play advocating for the needs of Yukon's First Nations communities. One of his first priorities after he's sworn in later this month will be to visit those communities, talk to elders and youth, and "get connected with the people."

"We're still challenged with a lot of things in our daily life, [but] the social fabric has been starting to weave back together.

"I think we all have a responsibility to assist and help out our nations, help the First Nations movement."

Finding common ground

The relationship between CYFN and the Yukon government has been strained in recent years, but Johnston is hopeful that he can find more common ground.

He describes himself as a listener, who's eager to collaborate and negotiate with any and all of Yukon's three political parties. He says he has good relationships with all of them.

You can't just base unity on our past- Peter Johnston

"You're not always going to get what you want," he said. "Really, at the end of the day, it's about opening the lines of communication."

He'd love to bring all of Yukon's First Nations into the CYFN fold, but admits there are challenges. 

Totem poles at the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre. 'There’s definitely things that bind us together as Yukon First Nation people - the culture, the language, they're all important to us,' Johnston said. (Minnie Clark)
"The question around unity has been talked about around the table for a number of years. And obviously when you're fragmented as Nations, it's important to regain that.

"But, you've got to make them want to come there. You can't just base unity on our past."

Johnston will be sworn in later this month at CYFN's general assembly. He'll serve a three-year term.   

"Hopefully as a council we can provide more insight to what's going on behind closed doors, if you will, and try to get people excited about the work that is being done, but more importantly, about the work that's got to be done."

With files from Mike Rudyk and Sandi Coleman