Women of the Arctic Council: Interview with Devlin Fernandes, Executive Director of Gwich’in Council International

In honor of International Women’s Day on 8 March, we spoke with some of the women who work with the Arctic Council to learn more about them, what it means to be a woman in their field and their advice for young women.

Devlin Fernandes is the Executive Director of Gwich’in Council International and has a strong background in capacity and leadership development and designing and delivering community-based projects. In this Q&A, Devlin shares about the importance of community empowerment, the power of believing in people and making space for diverse voices, and her advice for young women

Tell us about yourself, your work and your role within the Arctic Council

I was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, of mixed settler ancestry, and worked in bush camps, at a university, for government and in the not-for-profit sector across Canada, including over a decade on the north coast of British Columbia. My career has been built around capacity and leadership development, as well as co-designing and delivering community-based projects focused on the connections between people, place and economy.

I moved to Yellowknife, Canada in 2019 and serve as the Executive Director of Gwich’in Council International (GCI), one of the Permanent Partipants at the Arctic Council. I’m responsible for overseeing the adminstration, programs and strategic plan of GCI, and supporting our Board, members and partners to amplify the voice of the Gwich’in Nation on issues of sustainable development and the environment.

Within the Arctic Council, I facilitate invovlement in projects, discussions and Working Groups. I look for ways to connect resources and opportunities at the Arctic Council with community priorities and needs, and bring Gwich’in expertise, knowledge and leadership to Arctic Council activities and decisions.

"I believe that there's so much power, strength and knowledge at the community level; it is the focus for action, hope and change. However, communities – and diverse voices within communities – are not always at the table, or don’t have the tools to engage appropriately, even though they're often the most impacted by decisions, and able to contribute to the solutions." Devlin Fernandes

What motivated you to pursue a career in community and Indigenous affairs?

I was raised in a service-orientated family. My mother worked for the public service, and while now retired, continues to do many, many things to support people around her. I’ve always been most fulfilled and challenged when I have a role in advancing, supporting and/or empowering others, and can do my small part in making this world a better place.

I believe that there’s so much power, strength and knowledge at the community level; it is the focus for action, hope and change. However, communities – and diverse voices within communities – are not always at the table, or don’t have the tools to engage appropriately, even though they’re often the most impacted by decisions, and able to contribute to the solutions. This motivates me, as well as Canada’s legacy of how it’s treated Indigenous Peoples and the need to change.

What do you enjoy most about your work?

The people – I’ve been fortunate in my work to serve, learn from and work with incredibly passionate and dedicated people, and I love hearing their stories, watching them excel, and be pushed to do better every day.

The board members of Gwich’in Council International, spread across Alaska, Yukon, the Northwest Territories and Alberta, volunteer their time and amaze and inspire me in everything they do in their communities, workplaces and networks. The Arctic Council family, who have been very generous with their time and expertise, and work in the spirit of cooperation. Most recently, I watched an incredible group of youth from the Western Arctic Youth Collective deliver three days of programming under the Sustainable Development Working Group Local2Global project, and go beyond expectations in curating powerful and insightful conversations and events about health and wellness in an inclusive and supportive way. It shows the power of believing in people and making space for diverse voices.

Have you faced any obstacles in your career? Do you believe any of these were specific to being a woman?

I have been extremely lucky in my career to be supervised, mentored and supported by strong women, and believe that obstables have been mitigated because of this, but even still, I have been in uncomfortable situations because of my gender. I’ve seen women around me face obstables in their careers, and think we have a lot of work to do to make space for a gender lens, lift each other up, and come up with better ways of measuring and celebrating success.

"I am deepy inspired by women who take on leadership roles even though it exposes them to often unfair criticisms, invasions of privacy and compromises time with family. I am indebted to all of the trailblazers who faced obstacles and broke down barriers. To those who have different worldviews and are willing to share and bring forward culture, listening and love into systems which are not designed for them – I deeply appreciate them and their practices." Devlin Fernandes

Who is your role model, and why?

I have many; I’ve been priviledged to meet so many amazing, caring, passionate and inspiring people, who model an approach that it’s not only where you end up but how you get there, and who you bring along the way, that are important. I am deepy inspired by women who take on leadership roles even though it exposes them to often unfair criticisms, invasions of privacy and compromises time with family. I am indebted to all of the trailblazers who faced obstacles and broke down barriers. To those who have different worldviews and are willing to share and bring forward culture, listening and love into systems which are not designed for them – I deeply appreciate them and their practices. My family is full of strong women who take care of each other and work hard and I’ve learned a lot from them.

What advice do you have for young women who are interested in pursuing a similar career path?

Take opportunities, find mentors, be open to new ideas, cherish relationships, be genuine, and believe in yourself. Know that you can have good intentions but still cause harm, so you have to think and re-think your actions and decisions, and learn from them when things don’t work. Be willing to take risks. Value the time and stories that others are willing to share, and appreciate and embrace worldviews different from your own.

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