Thursday night’s leaders forum on First Nations issues touched on a wide range of topics, but ended up being more of a question-and-answer period rather than a debate.
The Council of Yukon First Nations hosted the event that saw at least 200 people gather at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre for more than two hours of questions from the audience and community members watching via a live feed.
“It was good to hear the parties talk about… where they stand in terms of reconciliation, in terms of housing, education,” said Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill after the debate.
But during the two-hour event, the leaders of the three main parties were only allowed one chance to rebut each other’s answers.
“Some of the questions could have been a bit more challenging,” Bill said. “I would have loved to see more of a debate on some of the issues, and some of the issues fleshed out a bit more.”
Right off the bat, NDP Leader Liz Hanson criticized the Yukon Party government for conflicts that have landed it in court with several Yukon First Nations.
Yukon Party Leader Darrell Pasloski talked about the “many good days” between Yukon First Nations and the Yukon government while acknowledging some “valuable lessons learned.”
Liberal Leader Sandy Silver also criticized Pasloski for saying the election wasn’t about the past five years.
It was reconciliation that drew the most emotional questions from the audience.
Mike Smith, the Assembly of First Nation’s Yukon regional chief, asked how reconciliation would address colonization, forced relocation and residential schools.
Silver talked about increasing funding, which would include restoring funding for the prevention of violence against Indigenous women.
“There are so many areas (where) reconciliation will happen,” he said.
He pointed to several of his candidates who have experience working on implementing self-government agreements. The most prominent is perhaps the Kwanlin Dun First Nation justice director, Jeanie Dendys, who is running against Pasloski in Mountainview.
For Hanson, it’s about more than just tweaking government programs.
“It’s about changing who we are, and how we understand who we are together,” she said.
Hanson also reiterated the NDP’s promise to recognize pre-colonial history by making National Aboriginal Day a civic holiday in the territory.
Pasloski said his government immediately looked at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission recommendations when they were issued and conducted a review of what had been done, before sharing that with First Nation leaders.
He reiterated his party’s commitment to implement the TRC recommendations, with $3.5 million in funding if re-elected.
First Nations leaders should take the lead, and a Yukon Party government would support them, he said.
But for Hanson, putting the onus on First Nations people to lead reconciliation was akin to “blaming the victim.”
“First Nations are not responsible for colonialism, they’re not responsible for establishing residential schools,” she said.
She talked about the need to help restore parenting skills disrupted by residential school and committed to reforming the child welfare system.
The event also allowed for discussion of issues that haven’t gained much attention during the campaign so far.
Ed Schultz asked about how each party would fight against the slow death of Indigenous languages.
Languages are cornerstones to Indigenous cultures and part of the challenge to overcome the legacy of colonialism is to “regain our identity,” he said.
For Silver, the revitalization of Indigenous languages has to go through the education system.
But there need to be ways to ensure children can go home and speak that language, otherwise they will forget it, he said.
Hanson asked why there weren’t language immersion programs in Yukon schools, especially in communities where First Nation children make up most of the student population.
“Twenty minutes a day isn’t enough,” she said, echoing Silver’s statement about the need to support families speaking Indigenous languages at home.
Both Pasloski and Hanson said they would favour granting Indigenous languages official language status as a symbolic gesture, but said there were challenges to making them working government languages.
All the parties committed to work with Yukon First Nations on reconciliation, implementing self-government agreements, and dealing with issues like housing or renewable energy in the communities.
But more often than not they were short on details, something Bill picked up on.
“Right now the relationship between First Nation people and the Yukon Party government hasn’t always been a smooth one,” she said. “What would you change about that? How would you go about being on an equal level footing as he called it?”
A representative from the Aboriginal Women’s Council asked the candidates whether they would support the organization, which she said was underfunded.
She also asked whether their respective governments would create an Indigenous women’s directorate.
Pasloski re-announced his party’s pledge to double funding for Indigenous women’s organizations, and its support for the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Hanson, however, said that the opposition lobbied the Yukon Party for weeks to get them to support the inquiry. She said the NDP, on the other hand, has been committed on that front for years.
Silver said the fact the question had to be asked was “troubling.” He also committed to more resources for survivors of sexual assault.
Carbon pricing, of course, eventually made its way into the debate.
Silver brought it up when talking about food security and retrofits, saying the carbon tax was coming, regardless of what the Yukon Party claims.
Pasloski reiterated the Yukon Party’s talking point, saying such a tax would increase the cost of everything in Yukon.
But it was one of the few occasions the leaders directly criticized one another’s platforms.
Contact Pierre Chauvin at firstname.lastname@example.org