Sitting at the Chief’s Table

Lesson: Decide to be a leader or a technician

At some point in my background, I had the opportunity to put together what would become the Yukon Mine Training Association (now part of the Yukon College), and with that, raise over $20mm for aboriginal training. It originally started as an effort to access some federal government funds dedicated to aboriginal mine training at a tungsten mine on the border of the Yukon and the Northwest Territories. The operators of the mine had contacted me about working to access the funds, along with a colleague of mine – Sam. Sam was amazing to work with, he was big on training and loved to mentor young people. I had the pleasure of working with him over the years including trying desperately to get a gold mine back into production.

Drill rigs in the Yukon

I think Sam was working with the Yukon Government in a liaison role and we put a meeting together with the Director of Mines (Jesse) who loved the idea and gave us some seed money to keep the concept alive. In the end, the federal funds were for big projects with lots of employees, and the tungsten mine didn’t qualify.  But the idea grew, with some in the industry backing our work (thankfully with funds too) and I saw a way to access the funds if we could get all the exploration and mining companies together along with all the 16 First Nation governments of the Yukon. Word made it back to me that some of the old boys (not backing the concept of working together) in the Yukon mining community were running bets on how fast I would fail.

After a year or more of meetings and work to set up everything, the job was complete, and I handed the keys to the Executive Director and went off to my next project. Never let it be said that it can’t be done. The real question is, how was it done?

Sam and I worked together to talk to all the Yukon First Nation governments and separately worked with the mining and exploration companies. Six companies really believed in what we were doing and put up some additional money to keep the project moving. These measures of support were critical to get industry on side, and greatly appreciated, as consensus and buy-in to a new ideas takes time.

Janet with Chief Jack Caesar & friends

With the First Nation governments we started with the Council of Yukon First Nations. This Council represented the majority of the governments and was represented by the Chiefs and some Elders. I went into the meetings a few times and at some point, a few of the Chiefs started to take me under their wing and teach me how to sit at the table, present and work to an agreement to support the project, which would see on-site and hands-on training for good paying jobs in their communities.

At one point I was heading into a meeting when one Chief pulled me aside and asked me to please leave my notebook in the car. Puzzled, I asked why, and was told that there are two kinds of people in here, leaders and technicians. I was told I was very good technically and able to do work beyond many people, but I also had a great vision and a strategic thought process, plus I acted with respect. The Chief said I should be a leader and leaders don’t have notebooks, they sit together, talk and listen. I was complimented and took his words seriously to act like a leader and really listen to what was being said to help guide the way forward.

Side note, I still had work to do and when no one was looking, I would run to my car and write down all the work that came out of those meetings.

I was very fortunate for the opportunity to work with all of the Yukon First Nation governments on this project and was taught what an agreement to move forward looked like. It’s a completely different process than the one traditionally used in industry. I also learned a new role through this project, my role as a go-between. A story for another day.


About the Author

Janet Sheriff

An innovative entrepreneur, Janet brings her extensive experience in all aspects of strategic planning, management, indigenous affairs and communications to start ups, new ventures and the mining & exploration sectors. Janet focuses her entrepreneurial spirit, leadership skills and vision to create new opportunities, award-winning innovative programs and new ways of conducting business. Her strong commitment to community engagement, sustainability and inclusion provides her the proven ability to work effectively and respectfully in cross-cultural environments.