Fentie takes election split to heart in Watson

Watson Lake was bitterly divided during the recent territorial election. And the wounds have yet to heal for Premier Dennis Fentie, say some in the…

Watson Lake was bitterly divided during the recent territorial election.

And the wounds have yet to heal for Premier Dennis Fentie, say some in the community.

The very personal, toughly-fought campaign saw parts of Fentie’s cherished riding turn against him.

The consequences are still being meted out for those who spoke out, said the riding’s former Liberal candidate Rick Harder.

“We never see him (Fentie) in the community,” said Harder on Wednesday morning as he peered out his window at the ice-covered Wye Lake.

“I haven’t seen him back in Watson Lake since he was elected, and the house hasn’t been sitting for a good portion of that time. There’s really no reason for him not to be here, talking to people.”

In the election, Harder took 196 of the 766 votes cast. Fentie took 495.

Though Fentie’s victory was impressive, the town is home to only 1,500 — making his vote tally a not-so-insignificant 48 votes slimmer than over his main rival in 2002.

Harder and many others have a good hunch why Fentie may be sore with parts of Watson Lake.

As his push for a second term in office hit the final corner in late September, Liard chief Liard McMillan circulated a letter to more than 500 of the First Nation’s citizens urging them to vote Fentie out.

McMillan chided Fentie and the government for inaction, including frozen social-assistance rates that often force aboriginal people in Watson Lake to choose between buying heating oil or food, and an unbuilt skating rink at Upper Liard, just outside Watson Lake.

And so October’s election victory appears to have marked the end of a very personal campaign for Fentie and the beginning of an icy relationship between himself and Liard and other members of the Kaska Dena Council.

Four months into that ice age, some see little sign of warmth on the horizon.

“We haven’t had a meeting with him for quite a while now,” said Kaska Nation member Hammond Dick on Wednesday, while councillors mingled in the gym of the Denetia Elementary School in Lower Post, British Columbia.

“Not since he’s been elected anyway,” said Lower Post First Nation deputy chief Walter Carlick without missing a beat.

“There’s been no offer of a meeting to meet with the Kaska.”

Both were adamant that they don’t speak for Liard First Nation or McMillan — who was contacted for this story but declined an interview.

But like McMillan, both Dick and Carlick are part of the Kaska Nation and have shared the ramifications of the sometimes-rocky relationship with Fentie.

“(The Liard First Nation is) pretty similar, collectively, with the Kaska Nation and where we want to go,” said Dick. “Getting to that point (meeting as equals) has been the problem with the premier.”

Fentie’s apparent silent treatment is his response to parts of his own community turning against him in the election, said Dick.

Ironically, the situation was completely different in the aftermath of the November 2002 election that swept Fentie and the Yukon Party to power.

In May 2003, Fentie signed a bilateral accord with Dick and several other Kaska Nation officials, committing the Yukon government to consult on any resource development projects in the Kaska’s traditional territory, and to create a revenue-sharing formula.

The accord was drafted in lieu of a land claim, as none of the Kaska member First Nations — Liard and Ross River in the Yukon, and Lower Post, Dease River and Kwadacha in BC — have signed final agreements.

Fentie’s efforts during his first term were a welcome first step, said Dick.

“When he first got into office the last time, he said, ‘We’re going to work outside the box,’ and that’s how we started,” said Dick. “It was a good start.”

While many First Nations were forced to deal with Fentie’s government, the Kaska had the premier as their MLA.

But the bilateral accord was allowed to expire in May 2005.

The Kaska pushed to have it extended and to speak to the government about further agreements, but nothing has happened, said Dick.

“He let that lapse and refused to talk about it,” he said. “We’re still here.”

At some point, it seems, Fentie has to break the silence.

The Kaska’s traditional land spans some 150,000 square kilometres, stretching from Northern BC to Ross River and east into the Northwest Territories.

Many believe the territory contains an enormous wealth of oil and natural gas, as well as mineral deposits and plenty of trees to cut into timber.

Industry is keen to get at the resources, and the Kaska are eager to see the increased self-reliance that wealth could bring.

A Liard First Nation handout on a table at the band office proclaims, “Oil and gas development is a way to create tangible, immediate benefit for grassroots people.”

But getting beyond unsigned land claims — the sticking point that the bilateral solved — seems to be the biggest problem to realizing that dream, said Carlick.

While the nation is still interested in talks, “It would have to be done with the Kaska Nation, rather than individual Kaska members,” said Carlick, noting Fentie treats the individual First Nations as Indian Act bands under the jurisdiction of the federal government.

“Do we need Dennis’ OK to say that we are self-governing?” asked Carlick. “Is there a magic time that happens when we sit down with both governments and they say ‘Oh, OK, now you’re self-governing’?

“We are self-governing,” he said.

The troubled relationship between Liard First Nation and Fentie has reared its head of late, said Harder.

An airport-planning session in Watson Lake by the aviation and marine branch of Highways and Public Works ignored Liard First Nation, he said.

“They were expecting to be consulted on a government-to-government basis, which would mean at least the minister contacting them and inviting them to take part in the process,” said Harder.

That consultation didn’t happen, he said.

But Fentie has a very different take on the situation.

The election is in the past and there are no residual bad feelings, he said in an interview from Vancouver on Friday.

 “There’s no chill at all,” said Fentie, adding that he has been back to Watson Lake several times since the election.

He met with McMillan face to face at December’s Yukon Forum, and has kept at work trying to bring the Kaska Nation toward settling land claims, he said.

“Obviously the objective is to conclude the land claims and move on with Liard First Nation, White River and Ross River Dena,” said Fentie.

And it’s not just the government side that needs to do more, he stressed.

The bilateral accord struck in 2003 had as one of its agreements an obligation to work towards a land claim, he said.

 “And that wasn’t totally incumbent on the Yukon government,” said Fentie.

Pressed if the election was tough on him personally and could be creating tensions, Fentie was adamant it wasn’t.

“Not at all. I won the riding with a very large majority. During a campaign, politics will take place. But the campaign’s over, so bye-bye politics,” said Fentie.

“Our job now is to be a responsible government, and that’s what we’re doing.”

But the Kaska, like Fentie does with them, disagree with Fentie’s sentiment.

“The Kaska are a big part of what happens in his riding,” said Carlick.

“It’s the heart of our traditional territory, and at some point he’s going to have to deal with the Kaska.”

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