straight talking ostashek championed yukon

I should have called. John Ostashek, the Yukon’s government leader, a successful businessman and outfitter, died on Sunday. He was 71.

I should have called.

John Ostashek, the Yukon’s government leader, a successful businessman and outfitter, died on Sunday.

He was 71.

Ostashek and I knew each other relatively well.

He didn’t like me.

I didn’t like his niggardly politics.

And so, while he ran the territory, Ostashek and I crossed swords. Often.

It made for an interesting, often complicated relationship.

Declaring a financial crisis in the territory, he unilaterally rolled back civil servant wages. It was, perhaps, the defining moment of his leadership of the territory.

A year later, the financial crisis was abating, but the memory of his strong-arming the union was never forgotten.

He lost the next election, and no politician has had the chutzpa to publicly take on the union since.

Ostashek was a mess of contradictions.

The guy hated income taxes, but he fired the territory’s up 11 per cent.

His government hired fraud investigators to root out social assistant cheats. But he invited a shyster miner on a prestigious trade mission to China.

By all accounts Ostashek was a guy who loved the outdoors. But he couldn’t wait to exploit them.

He made a fortune shooting its wildlife.

And, despite his love of the outdoors, as government leader he pitched postage-stamp-sized parks surrounded by mines and oil development, a strategy guaranteed to diminish the wildness of the place — the very quality that drew him here — for future generations.

Yeah, the two of us rarely saw eye to eye.

When he was a fledgling politician, I was still a relatively green reporter.

In some ways, the two of us learned our jobs together.

Ostashek had a Grade 11 education, and many people believed him a tad slow.

They were dead wrong.

Ostashek had a keen mind, he was curious and one of the best-briefed politicians I ever had the pleasure to spar with.

He was a tough character.

He went bison hunting, and bagged one, while on chemotherapy for a rare cancer.

And the guy knew how to make money.

Sometime after leaving school, he worked in a bank.

He quit that job, took a $500 loan from his dad and built a multimillion-dollar outfitting business in Alberta before coming to the territory.

He was someone who knew what he wanted, and went after it.

I remember the first time I saw him. He tossed open the doors to a local hotel’s ballroom and strode up to an open mike, where he challenged then-leader Willard Phelps on his stewardship of the Yukon Conservative Party.

I didn’t know it at the time, but he was clearly positioning himself to take control of the party.

That marked him as a guy who thought ahead and considered the future.

In June 1991, Tom Siddon approved a trans-boundary land claim for the Tetlit Gwich’in that handed 1,554 square kilometres of Yukon land to the NWT First Nation.

On October 26, in protest, the Conservative Party morphed into the Yukon Party.

On October 31, Ostashek announced his intention to lead the party.

His competition was Dan Lang.

But on November 21, the day before the voting, Lang withdrew his candidacy. Ostashek was acclaimed leader on November 22, 1991.

He urged Yukoners to “fight for their rights” against a federal government that was selling out the territory.

And he urged “Indian candidates to come forward and assume their rightful place in running the affairs of the whole territory, not just their own lands.”

That steadfast focus on governance of the whole territory for the whole territory’s benefit was often forgotten during his stint in government.

But it proved the foundation of his leadership.

“How can Yukoners continue to run their affairs if large sections of the territory are owned and controlled by non-residents?” he said, a sly reference to both the Tetlit Gwich’in settlement and Ottawa’s continued long-distance management of the territory.

Ostashek had a very clear understanding of the Yukon land-claim and self-government agreements. He signed three of them while he was in office.

And he wanted all 14 Yukon First Nations in the fold.

Like Premier Tony Penikett before him, he understood why it was important to have final agreements in which First Nations relinquished traditional territory in favour of defined settlement lands.

He knew how difficult it would be to govern the territory if it was carved up into separate fiefdoms. He knew the importance of having a central government looking out for the interests of the whole.

He wanted the territory’s aboriginal people to be central players in that larger vision.

In the years following his defeat, I came to understand that.

I came to respect it.

And, in a territory where people often shield their true feelings — out of fear, or self interest — Ostashek was a straight talker.

In 2004, he was on the mend from multiple myeloma — a rare cancer that afflicts white blood cells — when he was interviewed by this paper.

He was reluctant to talk about himself.

But politics was another matter.

He wasn’t afraid to talk about the Yukon, and voice concerns about the party he once led.

 “If anything, the (Fentie government) has set it back (the land claims file) by making side deals with First Nations and implementing parts of the land claims agreement with First Nations that haven’t even signed an agreement,” he said.

“And that’s going to come back to haunt us.”

Today, in light of a recent Yukon Supreme Court decision, those words are beginning to seem prescient.

I always meant to phone him. To tell him that.

I should have called. (RM)