Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation
Community Leaders

Voices of Vision: An interview with Joe Linklater

An interview with Joe Linklater
Audio file

Joe Linklater is a seasoned political leader and program manager with considerable experience in building and implementing public policy and First Nation self-governance. He held the position of Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation from 1998 to 2010. Joe has contributed to successful intergovernmental relations at the federal, provincial and inter-provincial levels and is well known for his significant expertise in establishing and overseeing economic development initiatives and trust structures. Joe is unwavering in his long-standing commitment to working for his community and has assisted in establishing a number of community volunteer groups. He continues to be an effective advocate of the ongoing political evolution and advancement of self-governance of First Nations, often in partnership with other self-governing First Nations and other orders of government. He holds a diploma in First Nation Management.



JOE LINKLATER: Joe Linklater. I sit on the board of the National Aboriginal Economic Development Board. I also sit on – I'm chairing the Gwich'in Council International and I also sit on the board of trustees of the Walter and Duncan Gordon Foundation.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): Joe Linklater is probably one of Yukon's best-known political figures. The former chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation was an international spokesperson for the high-profile lobby to protect the porcupine caribou herd which calves in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and is a primary food source for Vuntut Gwitchin people. The Vuntut Gwitchin were one of the earliest First Nations to sign self-government and land claims agreements. The First Nation has been self-governing since 1995 and is part owner of the Yukon's most well-known airline, Air North.

JOE LINKLATER: Self-government has brought to Vuntut Gwitchin a healthier community. It has re-instilled our notion of responsibility. And that's really what we're trying to achieve.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): I'm Meagan Perry and early in 2011 I met with Joe Linklater at his office in Whitehorse to talk about his years working to implement the Vuntut Gwitchin Self-Government Agreement. He started by describing the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

MEAGAN PERRY: For listeners who might not be familiar with the town of Old Crow and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, can you tell me about it, where it is, and what does it look like – all that kind of stuff?

JOE LINKLATER: It's beautiful. [laughs] It's located approximately 50-80 miles north of the Arctic Circle and it's 300 people and it's very, I think, typical isolated aboriginal community. It's a very healthy place and people are actually really, really busy all of the time there. And they certainly keep us busy by – in ensuring that we as leaders do everything we should be doing. And it's a wonderful place in that way.

MEAGAN PERRY: Tell me about how you became involved in working toward self-government and land claims agreements and the way those agreements are put into practice – you know, implementation. How did you start?


JOE LINKLATER: My father and mother taught us, when we were growing up, to be very independent and to always contribute to something. If you're going to be part of something, then you contribute to that. So that's really kind of why I got involved was I wanted to contribute to something our people felt passionate about. And obviously land claims – this land claim treaty that we signed off was really important to our people and I wanted to be a part of that. It was my Elders actually that sort of forced me into politics and, you know, I often tell people that part of the reason that I got into politics is that I just couldn't keep my mouth shut. And as a result I always said OK, you have something to say? Then you get this job and you say it there. And that's kind of how it all started. And – but I think, you talk to most people in Old Crow – 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. So that's – yes that's more or less how I got forced into it.


MEAGAN PERRY: And when they said you should do this, what was your reaction like?

JOE LINKLATER: My reaction was first of all, first and foremost was no, I don't want to be involved. I don't want to be involved at that level. And – but you don't say no. When somebody like Lydia Thomas tells you you're going to be involved you don't say no. And so I let my name stand. I didn't run for politics. I just let my name stand. And I think my first election as Chief – I think I won by, like, three votes or something like that. And I wasn't really running actually. [laughs] That's why I won by such a slim margin, I think. So – but I did want to be involved. I just didn't want to be leading the whole process because I knew nothing about it. And it was our Elders that really taught us, that said OK, you're going to get out there in front of our people and this is how you're going to do it. And so that was the beginning.

MEAGAN PERRY: And what year was that?

JOE LINKLATER: I became Chief in November of 1998.

MEAGAN PERRY: And implementation of self-government is a process that requires a long-term commitment and participation from all the parties. As Vuntut Gwitchin moved away from working with DIAND or DIA or Department of Indian and Northern Affairs – they all mean the same thing – what were some of the bigger issues of governance for Vuntut Gwitchin during the years that you were Chief?

JOE LINKLATER: It was a steep learning curve, for sure. Handling finances, I think, was a big issue. Creating accountability and transparency was another big issue. The DIA years didn't leave a good legacy so we had to kind of deal with that legacy and say OK, now that we have the responsibility and the authority to change things, we're going to change things. And so creating that transparency and accountability was really a big thing, you know, in order for our people to trust their own government. In order for our people to support their own government those were big issues that had to be dealt with. And one of the big issues was controlling debt and saying we all have to pay a price here. For a few years we all have to pay a price to get this debt under control. We have to stop the spending, basically, until we can be accountable, really. So it's not just the government but it's the people that this applies to. So that was, I think, the biggest learning curve that we encountered. And then once we did that then we could start implementing legislation and policies in a more formal manner.


MEAGAN PERRY: How does it feel to look back on the years that you worked to develop self-government in the Yukon? What do you think about?

JOE LINKLATER: Well first and foremost I think I'm very proud of our people for recognizing that this needed to be done, and there's no formal training that our people went through, so to speak, to recognize that and to recognize that it was important. But having said that, I also recognize that we had never, ever lost self-government. We simply re-instated it. Our Elders know implicitly what the issues of governance are and what it takes to have that level of authority and responsibility at the same time. They know implicitly that, because they've gone through that before. In 1950 DIA first came to Old Crow. In 1995 we signed off the Self-Government Agreement. It came into legal effect. So that's just basically 45 years. And so we had never – our Elders knew about self-government. They knew about responsibility and how to run a community and all these things. So as a leader coming into that I had all the [laughs] – all the background I needed right there just within our Elders. So I'm very proud of what our community has been able to achieve simply through that traditional knowledge that we have always had.


MEAGAN PERRY: Right. And so making the move into this new mode of self-government, was there ever a time in the course of that work that you felt that this kind of self-government had made a breakthrough?

JOE LINKLATER: It has. I think the Yukon is on the cutting edge of governance period, and it's because of self-government and the fact that the public government is basically forced to take into consideration our values, our structures and so on, I think it's changed public government for the better because we're actually getting comments and input from grassroots communities like Old Crow that's predominantly First Nation based. And so public policy is being affected by that, and that's the way it should be. I think the Yukon is a wonderful place as a result of that.


MEAGAN PERRY: You know, it's important for all Yukon citizens to understand the Umbrella Final Agreement – you know the document that got the modern self-government, land claims process moving, as well as the Yukon First Nations final agreements and self-government agreements. But those are big documents. They're complicated. So how do you explain them in a simple way?

JOE LINKLATER: They're actually probably some of the most simple documents to understand once you get past the legalese and what-not. We've developed a grade 12 law – well, based on the final agreements – and really they are documents of history. And that's what treaties are in Canada: documents based on history. And what it's telling people is that there was a society here before Europeans set foot on this continent. And this document is based on that proud and good history. So if you want to explain these legal treaties or whatever, then you might as well explain the laws of Canada, you know. So you can either take the hard route or you can take the practical one which is these are based on values and on culture and on a shared understanding of how society should exist in the Yukon – not just the Yukon, but Canada. So yes, so that's – I think it's a pretty complicated question but that's me simplifying it as much as I can. Yes.

MEAGAN PERRY: Self-government in the Yukon is unique within Canada, as you've pointed out, even though it's a good model for the rest of Canada. How do you explain self-government to First Nations in southern Canada who might not have seen this kind of a model before?

JOE LINKLATER: Well basically what I say about it is, you know, when I think back when I was just a child I remember watching the Berger Inquiry. They used to have daily reports on the Berger Inquiry up and down the Mackenzie Valley and in the Yukon. Really what the people were saying at that time was: we want our life back. In other words, before government came along they hunted, they trapped, they had a good life and they had to work hard for it. And really what to me, what the land claims are, are that. It's we got our ability back to work hard for – in other words we weren't living under the DIA where we were handed things on simply, you know, given housing, given welfare, given schooling or anything like that. Now we have the ability to strive for what it is we want and to get the best out of what we have. We have our land. We have money. And now we have governance. And to me that's something that our Elders always strived for. And it's not easy, but we now have that ability. As I tell people, that's that stuff that gets me up in the morning, you know? It's good in that sense.


MEAGAN PERRY: And sometimes, you know, it's difficult for younger people to recognize the changes that self-government might have brought to their lives, you know? They're growing up in a time where those things are just normal. Can you think of a concrete example of the day-to-day benefit of self-government?

JOE LINKLATER: Yes, we've hired people that I consider young [laughs] and they – you can just see it in them, this authority that they have, this – you know, this responsibility that's laid out in front of them, they grab it and they run with it, you know? There's investment that we've put in to – not just things like Air North or construction companies but also in to education, also in to investing in legislation that give us responsibility and authority. And for young people to see that, I think, is quite empowering to them. It seems that way. And they like that. They take that up and they run with it. And that's very good to see.

MEAGAN PERRY: The self-government agreements are unique, and implementing them takes time. Do you have any predictions about how governments will overcome the challenges that come with building something new like the modern version of self-government in the Yukon?

JOE LINKLATER: Well the – I guess the modern version of self-government in the Yukon is somewhat unique because the agreements are unique. I think it's going to make for better governance overall. So these agreements are between governments and they tie us closer together. So it's not just the aboriginal communities that are going to benefit from it but the non-aboriginal communities that benefit from it as well. And public government benefits from it as well. As far as agreements outside of the Yukon, it's really going to be up to the individual regions how they want to benefit from what's already established. And they can use either the Yukon agreements or the Northwest Territories agreements or the Nunavut agreements, the Nisga'a agreements, and take what they can from that and then negotiate something that's satisfactory to their region or communities or whatever.


MEAGAN PERRY: As you said, Yukon First Nations have a long history of self-government and they've really pushed for land claims and self-government after the arrival of Europeans. What does it feel like to be part of that history?

JOE LINKLATER: I feel fortunate to be part of that history. That's part of the reason I got involved with our community and our government is, you know, I wanted to play some small role in that. [laughs] I didn't know it was going to lead to 12 years as a Chief. But at the same time, you know, as a Chief I just feel like I'm part of the team. It's probably something like being a captain on a hockey team, you know? You're just part of the team. And that's the way I feel. And I think, you know, 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.

MEAGAN PERRY: What do you think self-government brings to the lives of aboriginal and non-aboriginal Yukoners?


JOE LINKLATER: A new perspective, which is always good. You know, self-government is not just for aboriginal people. Self-government is for all people, and I'm really excited to see how we develop as a society in the Yukon as a result of this new positive change.

MEAGAN PERRY: Thank you.

JOE LINKLATER: Perfect. Thank you.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): That was Joe Linklater, former Chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. He spoke to me in January of 2011 about Yukon land claims and self-government. This interview is intended to deepen public understanding of the history of land claims and self-government implementation in the Yukon. The ideas and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee alone. This series of podcasts was produced by the Implementation Working Group, a cooperation between the Council of Yukon First Nations, Government of Yukon, Government of Canada, and Yukon's self-governing First Nations.