Stephen Kakfwi (Interview)

Not many premiers could wear their hair in a ponytail, dress all in black, and carry it off, but Stephen Kakfwi is the exception to many rules.

Kakfwi, Stephen (Interview)

Not many premiers could wear their hair in a ponytail, dress all in black, and carry it off, but Stephen Kakfwi is the exception to many rules. A survivor of the residential school system and former militant Aboriginal activist turned political player, Kakfwi has ruffled feathers in both Ottawa and the North since taking over the helm of the NORTHWEST TERRITORIES in January, 2000. Recently, he sat down in a trendy Yellowknife café with National Affairs Correspondent Jonathon Gatehouse to discuss changes in the territory, the future of his Dene people, the dream of a natural gas pipeline project, and his own political ambitions.

How have things changed for the people and government of the Northwest Territories since the territory was divided and Nunavut was created in 1999?

It makes it much easier to govern. The territory is a lot smaller. We're still a million square kilometres. We're still bigger than Texas, but it's a long way from being one-third the land mass of Canada.

I think things are better. There's a tremendous sense of confidence, of determination, a clarity of purpose. In our lifetime we've gone from a hunting, trapping people to changing the Constitution of Canada, defining the rights and the role of Aboriginal people in Canada, introducing ourselves into the economy and the business community. Now, we deal with some of the largest companies in the world. Some of our people own airlines, trucking companies, real estate.

I don't think we're interested in trying to hide in reserves, having a separate self-government regime, or trying to seclude ourselves. I think virtually everybody in the North knows that's not the way to survive. The way to survive and become stronger is to assert ourselves in the business community and the political and government institutions. We have to be very clear and focused about what we are doing. Though we are small in number, the strength is in knowing exactly what it is we want to do.

What do you see as the future role of the non-Aboriginal population of the North?

The non-Aboriginal population want a home. They want to feel like they are part of a family. They want to have a sense that their values and traditions will be respected. This is one of the most welcoming places in Canada, and I think that can continue in large part.

Personally, I have always said that I would like to keep the population here small. I'm not interested in seeing a million or two million people here. It will happen eventually, but right now, the total Aboriginal population is about 20,000 and the non-Aboriginal population is about the same. We're still developing our sense of community and partnership. It's going to be to everybody's benefit, I think, to just leave it like that.

If people want to come North, they should come as tourists and visit, spend their money, tell us what a beautiful country we have, what great people and cultures we have, and we'll thank them and welcome them back again and again.

Thirty years ago, you were at the forefront of opposition to a proposed natural gas pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley. Today, you support a similar project. What has changed?

Thirty years ago, I couldn't even come into a place like this café without feeling totally intimidated and unwelcome. I wasn't part of the business community, the government, I wasn't part of anything. I was completely an outsider. We had no confidence that our people could benefit from a pipeline. The concept of Aboriginal rights was non-existent.

What benefits do you think this project would bring to the territory now?

We propose to be part owners of it. We would like to manage the construction of it. There's a lot of spinoff benefits. A pipeline will bring a lot of long-term development. We can manage it. The confidence is there.

Where will the money come from to develop a pipeline? Ottawa? Private industry?

Everybody just borrows it. I mean, nobody has that kind of cash in their back pockets. We'll just simply borrow it.

You've talked about resource rights. Is your government happy with your current deal with Ottawa?

No, they take it all. The highways around here are disintegrating, mostly because of the 8,000 trucks a year that roll North to supply the diamond mines. The diamond mines are paying royalties to the federal government, but the federal government has yet to produce any money to fix those roads. Right now, Canada owns all the land and the resources in the Northwest Territories. But it doesn't belong to them, it belongs to us. It belongs to the Aboriginal people and it will belong to the northern people who also make this their home.

If you go ahead with the pipeline, will you need a new resource deal?

Of course, and we're working on that. There's a revenue-sharing agreement that needs to be completed in the next four years or so. Canada accepts that. Yes, it will be done. We just haven't agreed exactly how.

We're not going to be like Alberta, taking everything just for Albertans. In the Northwest Territories, I think we are of the view that some of the resource revenue should be for all of Canada, some of it should be for Aboriginal people, and some of it should be for the whole territory. That's how we are going to negotiate the deal.

Will it take a change in the political status of the territory to accomplish the kind of sweeping overhaul you are talking about? Should the NWT become a province?

There's no expressed desire to become a province. We like the constitutional flexibility that is there now. We know that we have the capability of being a "have" territory - up until now that has been a contradiction. Territories are colonies by nature and by definition are supposed to be dependent on the benevolence of Ottawa. We don't accept that, or believe that Ottawa should control us any more than they already do. We know we can pay our own way. We know there are enough resources and enough money for this territory to be a healthy part of Canada. A part of Canada that contributes more than its share.

You recently announced your intention to seek another term as premier, but you've also said that will probably be your last hitch in the territorial legislature. Do you have bigger political ambitions?

It has been suggested in some quarters that I should look at federal politics. Never close off options, but right now I am a very strong and committed supporter of the current Member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories - Ethel Blondin-Andrew. As long as she's willing to continue working for us, I'm there to support her.

I want to be seen in Canada as a leader who is not afraid to jump onto centre stage and carve out a niche for myself. But also as someone who tries to bridge the disparities, even in the non-Aboriginal community, to make sure this is a place we're all proud of as Canadians. That's something we learned from the leaders back in the '70s when we were very militant. The message then was, "Yes, we are going to change things, but not on the backs of other people. You do it with class, with dignity, without taking away the rights of other people." It used to make us angry, but that attitude is the single biggest element of what makes us different in the North.

Maclean's October 21, 2002