Old Massett voted with strong support for Duffy Edgars as chief councillor in yesterday’s election.
Edgars will be joined by newly elected councillors Cecil Brown, Freda Davis, John Parnell, and Richard Williams.
Councillors Sonia Rice, Judy Williams, and Adeana Young will continue to serve after being elected to council last December.
Edgars received overwhelming support in the Dec. 4 vote, finishing with more than twice as many votes as the next contender in the six-person race for chief councillor.
The night before, council candidates met to discuss some of the top issues in the village.
They face $1.8 million in old debts for housing in New Town, plus dozens of empty houses in Old Massett that owners don’t want to let go.
Add a clear need for local jobs, a lull at the village’s co-owned sawmill, the politics of a proposed windfarm, not to mention the fentanyl scare, and joining the eight-member council table in Old Massett suddenly looks like a very hot place to sit.
But judging by the words spoken by some of the 90 people who turned out on Sunday, they will also start out with something rare among elected politicians — public support.
Frank Collison, Stihlda, a Haida hereditary leader who noted he is getting to be one of the oldest people in the village somehow, said he was impressed by how many people ran: six for chief councillor, and 10 for councillor.
“I’m really feeling good about the future of our village now,” he said, joining several speakers who said council has had too few public meetings for the last few years, and that Sunday’s meeting was the first he’d heard of the debt in New Town.
“The people need to know, because that’s their money,” he said.
“They need to know what’s going on with the council — which programs are successful, and which aren’t. We had a horrible incident about four years ago where we lost $2.5 million into the ocean.”
“We need accountability by the council to the people, and I’m feeling much better about how it’s going.”
In speeches and answers to questions at the debate hosted at the village hall by the Council of the Haida Nation, candidates for chief councillor spoke most often about how to improve Old Massett’s housing.
Tiffany Bell, who has just taken on a new Indigenous business development role with Community Futures, called the situation a crisis, noting that up to 15 people are sharing a single house.
Bell said the village needs to hire a new housing manager, and it should try to negotiate with homeowners who have overdue debts. As for the abandoned homes, Bell said several are hazards as well as eyesores, and should be demolished.
Kim Davidson, a former chief councillor, said the number of abandoned homes has been allowed to snowball.
Davidson said high unemployment is at the heart of the housing problem, and should be council’s focus — after moving back to Haida Gwaii, he said he was surprised how few forestry jobs are available to workers in Old Massett even after the Haida Nation won the TFL 39 court case.
Duffy Edgars, who recently served as councillor, said the old debts in New Town would be tough to collect in full from homeowners. Some people are repaying, he added, but much of the debt is now the village’s liability.
Edgars suggested the village may need to hold a referendum on how best to resolve the issue.
“That’s probably the biggest reason we’re not building houses in Old Massett now,” he said.
As for abandoned houses, Edgars said there is funding available to help with the cost of tear-downs, if owners are willing to let go.
Marlene Liddle, who has worked for the CHN, Northwest Community College, and previously served as councillor for Old Massett and Masset, said the village is not on any “freeze list” that would make it ineligible for housing funding.
Liddle agreed that the first step is to hire a housing manager, and suggested the village partner with NWCC’s carpentry program and other on-island trades courses to have students help build, wire, and plumb new houses, one or two at a time.
Harold Yeltatzie, a former board director for Coastal First Nations and TriCorp, joined the several candidates who called for a community meeting on the housing issue.
Yeltatzie suggested using new technologies to upgrade existing homes rather than small doing small, Band-Aid repairs, and hiring a carpenter and mould expert to assess the empty homes to see which are worth saving.
Housing was only one of several issues that candidates discussed at the three-hour meeting, which also covered children’s education, caring better for elders, crime, drug abuse, switching to a First Nations policing model, boosting tourism jobs across northern Haida Gwaii, avoiding conflicts with bears, and avoiding meetings with oil and gas companies.
The meeting began with a moment of silence for the late John T. Jones, a well-liked and respected village councillor who passed away suddenly this year.
His nephew Rob Brown, who ran for councillor, said if elected he would do his best to live up to his uncle, starting by promising only to do his best.
Before asking her question, Sharon Matthews echoed several in the hall in thanking everyone for running.
“Really, we know that any one of you who gets in is going to do a good job for us,” Matthews said.
“We know i’s hard to step forward and do something like this.