This past summer, 29-year-old Jordan Peterson became the youngest-ever vice president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council – the land claim organization representing the interests of about 3,500 Gwich’in people in the Mackenzie Delta of the Northwest Territories. Peterson’s victory, as well as the election of the council’s first female president, 39-year-old Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, means the Gwich’in put their faith in a young leadership team while the region undergoes big changes.
As vice president and a Jane Glassco fellow, Peterson has focused much of his community-building efforts on young people. “A big reason why I first moved home is to give our young people a voice, make sure that they’re heard, ensure that the ideas they have are actually being developed and implemented and give them the skills that will allow them to become better leaders when they’re older,” he told Arctic Deeply.
We spoke with Peterson as part of our series on emerging leaders in the circumpolar Arctic.
Arctic Deeply: What are you working on at the moment?
Jordan Peterson: I’m the vice president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, which is the land claim organization for the Gwich’in in the Beaufort Delta of the Northwest Territories. The population is about 3,500 Gwich’in. My position includes oversight over self-government negotiations, oversight over our lands department and our cultural heritage department. I’m also a member of the Gwich’in Council International, which is one of the permanent participants of the Arctic Council. I also have oversight over the Gwich’in steering committee for the two Gwich’in reps from the Beaufort Delta and over our Gwich’in settlement corporation, which is the settlement fund that was set up when the land claim was signed.
I’m also a fellow in the Jane Glassco fellowship and a co-chair for Our Voices, an emerging leader group out of the Yukon. My work there focuses on youth in the North in general, providing a safe space to talk about leadership and the issues our communities face, and to bring young people together to be able to work on those issues.
Arctic Deeply: Is there any issue or task you’re particularly passionate about?
Peterson: First of all, I’m hoping to focus on the self-government file. Right now, we’re doing consultations through the process for the Agreement in Principle [the agreement between Canada, the government of the Northwest Territories and the Gwich’in that will form the basis for the self-government agreement] and are doing workshops with people in the communities. Since being elected, the tribal council has focused on communication and ensuring information associated with all files, not just the self-government one. We want to make sure that what people are saying in the communities gets heard by the board of directors and gets tied back into the Agreement in Principle.
A second thing I’m working on is the Many Rivers project, a program that will allow young people to paddle the Peel Watershed next summer and will give them the opportunity to work with local knowledge holders. They’ll be able to take courses at Dechinta University, a land-based university out of Yellowknife, around Indigenous culture and land-based knowledge.
Arctic Deeply: Is there anyone that you’ve met throughout your life that particularly inspires you?
Peterson: There are quite a few, but I’ve been particularly close to two people. They’re both Gwich’in elders. Sarah Jerome is a teacher. She was a principal, went through residential school and also served as the language commissioner for the Northwest Territories. While she’s retired now, she still works toward creating land-based language programs. Sarah posed a question to me when I first moved home in 2013 [after finishing high school in Aklavik, Peterson went to go work in the southern construction industry]: “What does it mean to be proud to be Gwich’in?” I think that question needs to be posed to all Gwich’in people, to all Indigenous people. When you’re able to understand your culture, your identity and what that means to you, it not only grounds you but helps you identify priorities in your life and how those influence the decisions you make. I believe that if we don’t understand where we come from, we won’t know where we’re going. Cultural identity is a big part of who we are, and the well-being and health of our people is tied into that cultural and self-identity.
The other person is Eileen Koe. She’s a Gwich’in elder who has been working around counseling for residential school survivors. She’s been a source of safety for a lot of our elders and our older generations that have gone to residential schools. That’s a big responsibility. It’s a lot to take on and a lot to bear as a single individual. She has really inspired me to want to help my people as much as I can, walk beside them and make sure they feel supported.
Arctic Deeply: What motivates you?
Peterson: A few things. One, and most importantly, I have two children. One is a 10-year-old daughter and the other is a son, he’s just over a year. They not only help me realize what’s important in life but also drive me to create a better life that you had. I haven’t had a bad life. I had a lot of incredible experiences, both negative and positive, and I think that it’s up to you and how you deal with those. Do you want to look back on your life in 50 years and say that you’ve made every decision that you could for yourself, for you people and your family, or do you want to just let life slip by you and not have control of it?
The other thing, and a big reason why I first moved home, is to come give our young people a voice, make sure that they’re heard, ensure that the ideas they have are actually being developed and implemented and give them the skills that will allow them to become better leaders when they’re older.
The Arctic is a very fragile place and a very frigid place in terms of the environment that we live in. We have to learn how to adapt to changes. This is the first place that will be affected by climate change and everything else that comes with living off of fossil fuels. The rest of the world doesn’t see it on a day-to-day basis the way we do while living in the Arctic and living in the North.
Arctic Deeply: Has there been a defining moment in your career?
Peterson: The day I got elected was the moment that made me realize that I was right in the way that I led and worked with my people, the way that I led and worked for young people. The Gwich’in had faith in me and believed I was able to lead the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the Gwich’in Nation into a more prosperous and healthy future and bring back that dream to be proud to be Gwich’in. I want to help people define for themselves what their journey to become decolonized means and looks like, because colonialism has taken a big effect on Indigenous communities across Canada, across North America, across the world. I personally believe that you can’t tell all Indigenous people “this is how you decolonize,” because every person has been affected in totally different ways. That moment and me being elected and me being sworn in was a moment that I knew that I was heading down the right direction of how I decolonize myself.
Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now?
Peterson: I would hope that we realize that the borders that we have put up as Indigenous people, that Canada has put up, whether it’s the border between Yukon territories and Nunavut or the borders that we have put up around our land claims or our communities, are man-made and that true partnerships are the way we move forward in terms of decolonization, in terms of creating healthy communities and in terms of creating a sustainable autonomy that’s going to be able to give our people and our communities an opportunity to live a healthy life or to be able to be self-determined. I think that self-determination is a critical piece in ensuring the future of our nations of the North. I’d really like to see us collaborate and actually work together and put our past differences aside. There are a lot more self-government agreements and land claim agreements being signed all across Canada, and until we start sharing information and until we start learning together, we’ll never be able to create the best agreement.
This Q&A is part of our series on young leaders in the Arctic. Read more:
- Sixteen Young Leaders Who Will Influence the Future of the Arctic
- Village on the Edge Raises a Young Climate Ambassador
- A Clear Voice on Indigenous Rights and Climate Change
- Satellite Studies and Fieldwork Reveal a Globalized Arctic
This version corrects an earlier version of the story in which it was reported that the Gwich’in Tribal Council represents 2,700 Gwich’in people and the Agreement in Principle is an agreement between Canada, the government of the Northwest Territories, the Gwich’in and the Inuvialuit. In fact, the Council represents 3,500 people and the agreement in principle is one between Canada, the government of the Northwest Territories and the Gwich’in.