I’m Chief Tommy Kakfwi of Fort Good Hope. This is my statement.
I am 69 years old. I live alone in a three-bedroom house. I spent much of the last 30 years struggling with alcohol, but I’ve been sober a few years now.
I continue to have a deep compassion for those still struggling. I know what it’s like, I was there. So I reach out without judgement to those who are on the street who have nowhere to sleep, eat, wash, or even tidy up, and I care for them.
After I was elected chief, I continued to take in intoxicated people who no one else wanted around. This is my life’s work, I’m a kind person. I reach out to those who suffer like I suffered. Once they get some sleep, they eat, cook, make bannock, clean themselves up and wash their clothes. I accept them with no judgement. I enjoy making people laugh and making them feel accepted and just a little bit happier.
My councillors do not seem to appreciate my compassion for my fellow alcoholics. They have asked that I do not offer them rides in the municipal vehicle anymore, but I refuse to stop my care for them.
In the spring of 2020, after the Elders asked me to run for chief of Fort Good Hope, I felt honoured and strong enough to serve. A few months after I was elected in 2020, Covid hit Fort Good Hope. As a new chief in those difficult and unprecedented times, I led the community through the impact of the outbreak. We had the first Covid-related death in the NWT. We closed the airport, and even the winter road. Every day I worked long hours with the health professionals. We had a strong team and I think we did an incredible job.
I also contracted Covid but I recovered and continued to work. We asked all the families to stay in their homes and isolate for 30 days and longer. We had a strong team and I think we did an incredible job. During those difficult months, some of our people continued to turn even more to alcohol and drugs while isolating. They developed a strong and dependent relationship with local bootleggers and drug dealers. I believe this is why, in July of 2022, there was a strong outcry and outrage when someone in Fort Good Hope posted the names of alleged bootleggers and drug dealers. They had become valued and were protected. Some of that outrage came from my councillors. The council believed I posted the list and they reacted strongly. They found a way to try to remove me as chief. They said according to their municipal bylaws, I missed three meetings in a row with no viable excuse and was no longer chief. They gave me a week to respond and I wrote them a letter to explain. The reason I could not attend one of the meetings was that an unknown person rammed my truck. The band manager strongly advised me to leave the community for my own safety and arranged my travel to leave immediately. The council has never accepted or responded to that letter.
Dene election code
I was elected under the Dene custom election code, while the councillors are elected through the municipal rules and regulations. The chief cannot be removed by municipal bylaws and regulations.
A series of council meetings were held, including two public meetings — none called by me. At one of the community meetings no minutes or notes were taken, there’s no record of that meeting. None of these meetings recorded the attendance or the statements made. Powerful statements were made by Elders and leaders and there’s no record of their words or even their presence.
Many of our leaders fought for years to gain the right to govern ourselves because we all believed we could do it better. We had our own laws and customs that we committed to uphold. In 1981, Fort Good Hope leadership got rid of the municipal council and the chief-in-council took over managing municipal services. We were the first to establish a provisional self-government. That proud moment was 41 years ago.
Have we made any progress? Really?
I recently had meetings and consultations with the regional director general and they seemed to agree that the council had no authority to remove the chief, especially using municipal bylaws. The territorial government has been silent and quite willing to let it go as if it had no interest. During this entire time I have continued to believe I am the chief and I cannot be removed by municipal bylaws.
Recently, I borrowed money to pay for a legal opinion and that legal opinion supports what many of us said all along: the chief can only be removed by the Dene custom election code and not by municipal bylaws. We sent the legal opinion to the council recently and copied the Department of Municipal and Community Affairs and the regional director general. The council continued to say they removed the chief because he missed three meetings, contrary to the municipal bylaws. The band council resolution states they are using a municipal bylaw to remove their chief.
I know there are similar issues of self-governance of chief and councils in other Dene communities that are being ignored and unresolved. It is my duty as chief of Fort Good Hope to fight what I see as unlawful actions by a handful of councillors. What they have done must be challenged and not allowed to happen ever again.
Recently, two councillors resigned. Because of this, the council must not be allowed to do whatever they want and feel they can get away with it. In spite of all this, I am prepared to go to work and carry out my duties as chief and to extend forgiveness to the councillors for the harm and abuse they have heaped on me. We all have to forgive.
Our people deserve better. We need to heal and work together to stay strong for a good future for all of us. We can make that choice!