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An Irish view of aboriginal governance
John Carter inspired by his own cultural heritage as CEO at Salt River First Nation

Paul Bickford
Northern News Services
Published Thursday, May 10, 2012

John Carter, the chief executive officer with Salt River First Nation in Fort Smith, has a somewhat surprising answer when asked what first interested him in aboriginal governance.

NNSL photo/graphic

John Carter is chief executive officer with the Fort Smith-based Salt River First Nation. - Paul Bickford/NNSL photo

"Because I'm Irish," he responded.

Carter, who is from Ottawa but of Irish heritage, explained the problems faced by native people in North America were very similar to those faced by the Irish in their homeland.

"They were disposed from their lands. We were disposed from our lands by the English in the 1600s, just about the same time they were doing it to the aboriginals here," he said, adding native Irish who he pointed out are Celts and not Anglo-Saxons fought the English for hundreds of years.

Carter also noted that, similar to aboriginal people, the Irish almost lost their culture and language when forced to the south of the island, which is now the Republic of Ireland.

"It was only through valiant efforts in the 1920s and '30s that the people still speak Gaelic in the south of Ireland and I don't think there are a lot of Gaelic speakers there anymore," he said.

Carter said, as a person of Irish heritage, he identifies with what native people went through and sees "absolute parallels" between the two people.

Since he wasn't in a position to help the Irish improve their lot, he said he figured he could try to help aboriginal people.

The certified general accountant saw his interest grow in aboriginal government while working for the GNWT and, in 2002, he became a certified aboriginal financial manager.

Carter has been the CEO with Salt River First Nation for about a year.

Prior to his current job, he was CEO with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation for over three years, and before that spent a year as executive director of the NWT Chamber of Commerce and was assistant controller general with the GNWT for a decade until he retired from government.

Carter said he tried the retired life after leaving the GNWT.

"It lasted a month," he said. "I was bored out of my skull."

Before coming north in 1996, he spent many years as a senior executive with various departments and agencies in the federal public service, including time with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.

"My whole background in the government has been in accounting and management," he said.

Carter, 63, noted that, as CEO with Salt River, he is involved in all aspects of band management, including public works, accounting, financial issues, information gathering and writing proposals for funding.

"This job has a little bit of everything in it," he said. "A lot of what I do is getting information and getting funding from various government sources. So it really helps if you've got contacts in the federal government and the territorial government, which of course I do."

In particular, he deals a lot with members' needs, including emergency repairs for housing and other assistance programs.

Salt River First Nation has 892 members and the majority live outside Fort Smith. Slightly less than 300 live in the community.

"We look after our membership regardless of where they are physically," Carter said, noting whatever programs are available in Fort Smith are generally available to members outside the community.

As CEO, he also offers advice to the chief and council on various issues.

"This definitely is an apolitical job in the sense that I don't take sides in anything," he added.

His biggest challenge as CEO is building capacity in the organizational structure of Salt River First Nation.

"For me, capacity development is obtaining the staff, getting them educated academically and also getting them educated on the job," he said, adding that is important for creating an economically viable band.

Capacity building is a major challenge for band administrations across Canada, he added. "There's never enough time, there's never enough money, there's never enough training dollars."

Salt River First Nation has 21 permanent employees, along with student workers and a fire crew during the summer.

The capacity of Salt River is improving, Carter noted. "But it's still very much of an uphill struggle because we have so few staff here that, if you just lose one person, it's kind of like you've lost a critical component of the system."

Carter said he enjoys his job as CEO with Salt River First Nation, noting no two days are alike. "You think you've seen it all and then you find out in actual fact you haven't seen it all."

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