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The Arctic’s Emerging Young Leaders

A Passionate Young Voice on Tradition and Leadership in the Arctic

Yellowknife’s Kyla Kakfwi Scott helped start Dene Nahjo, an organization aimed at advancing social and environmental justice for northern peoples and promoting Indigenous leadership.

Written by Eline Gordts Published on Read time Approx. 7 minutes
Clouds hang over a pond northeast of Yellowknife. AP/Charlie Riedel

When Arctic communities make the front page of the newspaper or the top of the evening news, the story usually focuses on some of the deep challenges northern communities face, like the effects of climate change, struggling economies or high depression rates.

Often lost in the coverage is the fact that while some Arctic communities face numerous challenges, they are also coming up with numerous solutions. “When I look around in my community, I see a lot of vision, innovation and a super-passionate community of people ready to tackle those big issues with integrity,” Kyla Kakfwi Scott told Arctic Deeply. “I hope that that focus on innovation translates into the feeling that our communities are driven by our people, the feeling that opportunities are endless,” she added.

Kakfwi Scott, 35, lives with her husband and two daughters in Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Her father, former premier Stephen Kakfwi, is from the Northwest Territories’ Fort Good Hope. Her mother, Marie Wilson, a former head of CBC North and a former commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, hails from western Ontario. The list of Kakfwi Scott’s accomplishments already runs long. She’s a senior adviser for the government of the Northwest Territories, the chair of the selection committee of the Arctic Inspiration Prize, a former Jane Glassco fellow and a founding member of Dene Nahjo – an organization aimed at advancing social and environmental justice for northern peoples and promoting Indigenous leadership.

We spoke with Kyla Kakfwi Scott as part of our series highlighting the work of young leaders in the Arctic.

Arctic Deeply: What are you working on?

Kyla Kakfwi Scott: A lot of my time is spent working with Dene Nahjo, the organization focused on social and cultural innovation from an Indigenous perspective that I helped co-found along with a group of nine others. I’m involved in a lot of the community-based projects Dene Nahjo has led since its inception in 2013. For my day job, I’m a senior adviser, anti-poverty, for the government of the Northwest Territories. I’m involved in the anti-poverty action plan and work as a lead on the land collaborative fund that piloted last year. I’m also currently the chair of the selection committee of the Arctic Inspiration Prize and I was a fellow in the Jane Glassco Northern Fellowship Program.

Arctic Deeply: When you launched Dene Nahjo in 2013, what need were you hoping to fulfill?

Kakfwi Scott: Our group had organized some community events as part of the Idle No More movement. We wanted to capitalize on the renewed national focus on Indigenous issues in Canada that the movement had generated, but were trying to figure out what our role in that could be, or should be. In the North, there’s a strong focus on challenges, typically framed as the problems and the gaps we see in our community – the educational gap, the employment gap. We didn’t want to spend a lot of time adding to the discussion of problems, but instead try to focus our energy around action. If we’d identify a gap, could we also see something we could do to address it, even if it was just something small. We wanted to drive action and shift the dialogue to be more about the great and innovative things that are happening in our communities.

Arctic Deeply: What motivates you?

Kakfwi Scott: As we were discussing what we wanted to do, as a group of youngish Indigenous people, we talked about how to address things like the fact that none of us have learned to speak our languages or the disconnect from cultural activities we experience in varying degrees because we haven’t been exposed to them or haven’t had the opportunity to learn because of disruptions in family dynamics coming out of residential schools and colonization more broadly. Those were things that I continue to struggle with as an individual. But I’m also a parent. My oldest daughter was 9 or 10 when we were having these conversations, and at some point I realized that I was still talking about how I was going to correct these gaps for myself while she was quickly getting to an age where I was actually losing my window to correct them for her. I realized that that’s where my focus needed to be and that continues to be a big part of my motivation.

Another part is the connection with the rest of the founding members of Dene Nahjo. We have gone from being friends and collaborators to being like each other’s extended family. I recognized that I wasn’t alone in experiencing some of the challenges that previously felt so unique to me – for example when I felt isolated growing up in Yellowknife and not my traditional territory, feeling that I didn’t have access to my family or my land or my elders, and feeling really alone in that experience. Realizing that it’s not just a true experience for me, it’s not just a true experience for the others members, it’s really increasingly a universal experience, was a really big motivator, especially if we look at how large the Indigenous population in Yellowknife is.

Arctic Deeply: Is there any project that you’ve put up that you’re particularly proud of?

Kakfwi Scott: In addition to the Indigenous Women Circumpolar Gathering, I’m super proud of our hide-tanning project. We’ve done tanning projects for the last couple of years, in different regions. But we realized that to be able to participate in those camps, you need to have the financial resources and the time resources to travel and live in a camp setting for a couple of weeks. That meant it was still largely inaccessible to many, especially for people living in urban centers. We also wanted to showcase what actually goes into tanning, because while Indigenous people understand that tanning a hide is a lot of work, non-Indigenous people probably understand that in theory but don’t often get invited to the camp to actually see what that looks like. So we thought it would be great to have the camp be accessible and right downtown, so that anyone who wanted could check it out, whether they made it a visit over their coffee break or something that they took a week out of work for to come and be a part of. We partnered with the City of Yellowknife, which supported the project as an act of reconciliation. There’s a lot of talk in Yellowknife about our downtown, and issues like poverty and homelessness. It felt like the framing around Indigenous people in the community was based around those problems. So we wanted to physically change that and for a period of time be able to have a completely different representation of what Indigenous people in the community look like.

Although we had the theory behind why we thought it would be absolutely great, the reception within the community was totally beyond anything that we had anticipated. Two hundred people visited the camp every day, for three weeks. Office workers came down over their lunch breaks, summer camps brought their kids through, cultural associations came and spend time there for team building activities. It turned into a really fantastic community hub that I think took everyone by surprise. We heard from lots of people how moved they were to have had the opportunity to be part of that experience. It was simple, but impactful beyond what might have been expected.

Arctic Deeply: Is there anyone you’ve met through your work or in your community that really inspires you?

Kakfwi Scott: Lots of people. I continue to be inspired by all of the founding members of Dene Nahjo, and I think that’s partly why we’ve been able to achieve as much as we have in such a short time. There’s this constant implied challenge to do more and be better than you thought you were capable of.

I’m totally inspired by my parents. They’re both well-recognized leaders in the North and in the country. That’s part of my inspiration, that’s part of my education and part of my motivation.

I have also had the ability to connect with really powerful leaders. Sheila Watt-Cloutier has been a really visionary leader in the North, and I’m lucky to consider her a friend and mentor. On a daily basis, I work for a deputy minister, Debbie DeLancey, who is a long-time northerner and a total visionary. She came back from retirement with the goal of completely reforming health and social services in the Northwest Territories and I came to work in public service because of her.

Arctic Deeply: What’s your vision for the Arctic 10 years from now?

Kakfwi Scott: I’d like for it to look the way I see it. Not to take away from the challenges we face right now, but when I look around in my community, I see a lot of vision, innovation and a super-passionate community of people ready to tackle those big issues with integrity. I hope that that focus on innovation translates into the feeling that our communities are driven by our people, the feeling that opportunities are endless. Ten years from now, my kids will both be out of high school, and stepping into their own young leadership roles, and I hope they’ll be doing that in a space where culture permeates everything they do, where a clean environment and access to land are a given, and the ability to maintain traditional practices like hunting and tanning continue to be an important part of their daily lives, not something we talk about in a historical context.

Arctic Deeply: What are some of the things that could help that innovative mindset flourish?

Kakfwi Scott: We need to continue reframing how we approach issues. We’re at the front end of having an environment where people feel empowered to advance their own solutions and to self-generate, where they can see opportunities to take things on and have the tools and the connections to drive their own solutions. That’s part of what we’re trying to build through Dene Nahjo – a platform for people to access the support that they need to advance their own solutions. I hope that we’ll be able to continue to expand that and to grow into providing that platform and that center.

This Q&A is part of our series on young leaders in the Arctic. Read more:

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