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Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Sean Smith on preparing to lead the Kwanlin Dün First Nation in Yukon

It’s still feels “very surreal” to Sean Smith, the next chief of one of the largest First Nations in the Yukon.

Smith was elected chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation on Wednesday in Whitehorse, unseating Doris Bill who has held the position since 2014.

“It’s just a matter of gathering myself. It’s been a very busy month and a half, two months, of discussions and meeting with citizens, and really just rallying the support,” Smith told Leonard Linklater, host of CBC Yukon’s Midday Café.

“[I’m] excited, happy, but also tired and exhausted. But ready to go.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So what are your priorities as chief?

The number one issue I think that we can understand is a large concern is the lack of housing, lack of affordable housing. And it seems to be a consistent message that I heard from a number of households.

That would be a really important part of the work going forward, is to really look at that and do some planning and steps to take action on that. 

The First Nation is probably one of the larger landholders around the city of Whitehorse. Do you think you hold a key position there?

I think we definitely do. And I think those are things that our past leaders, our past elders, had envisioned when it came to discussing what a land claim or modern treaty looks like for Kwanlin people, and about those opportunities with our land, to ensure that we have places to live.

The history of Kwanlin Dün within the city of Whitehorse, we’ve been basically moved around to different spots and locations, you know, Whiskey Flats, and then down to Shipyards, and then from there to Sleepy Hollow, and then down to Lot 226. And so being moved around, you know, was really part of those things and discussions of our elders and our people discussing land claims — that’s a very powerful piece, I think that we could do some amazing things with that, with our people.

The Kwanlin Dün First Nation is based in Whitehorse’s McIntyre subdivision, seen here in 2017. (Wayne Vallevand/CBC)

So housing is priority number one. What else is there?

I think one of the other pieces is to work with our Kwanlin Dün governance structure.

Some of the  things we need to I think enhance and build on is our Constitution. Because one of the things I heard within the community, one of the largest concerns, is our voice, the people’s voice, within Kwanlin Dün government, self-government, and how we can work with our people to enhance and amplify and empower our citizens.

I think with those ideas, you know, going back 50 years ago to Together Today for our Children Tomorrow, when they delivered that paper to Ottawa, it was really a historical moment to really say we want things for our people that we were not being given or provided or connected to. That includes opportunities within education, within the economy, with places to live. And those are powerful things and they still ring loud and clear to this day. So those are things that we can build upon.

A new council was also elected — Charlene Charlie, Charles Chief, Linda Moen, Jesse Ryder, Jolene Smarch and Ray Sydney. What do you think it will be like working with your council?

Well, I think a lot of our campaigns, in running in the election, they did align.

I definitely look forward to working with them and to look at how we can just work together in a safe and respectful and cultural manner. 

I think that some of the things, you know, that I can bring there… I appreciate being blessed with a lot of different opportunities that I’ve had to work with younger generations, all the way from the babies all the way up through to the elders, and learning the traditional knowledge and history of our people. And definitely as the elders say, it’s not ours to hang on to, it’s ours to pass on, because that’s the way it’s been for thousands of years.

You’re very invested in the culture and in your language. I understand that’s something that’s special to you, close to your heart and something you might be bringing to the job?

Growing up here, my mom and dad, my grandma and grandpa, they’d take us to potlatches and gatherings and those kind of things, and then connecting to that when I was older, and really taking steps towards traditional dancing, towards the singing, and working with our different generations in the schools and daycares.

And working with our elders in terms of capturing some of that amazing knowledge and those things that we can use as a foundation for ourselves and for our people — those are things that are really important, especially as we go and implement our self-government agreements and work with our different partnerships within our traditional territories.

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