A Yukon First Nation demands a special kind of civil servant.
They don’t just listen to management higher-ups, but to elders too. They don’t get a mandate from an election so much as annual general assemblies. And they don’t have the same body of law as the rest of Canada to enforce – they have self-government and land claims agreements as well.
These differences make it hard, or nearly impossible, to import expertise for the territory’s 11 self-government First Nations.
That’s why Yukon College is prepping future government workers on the special aspects of running a First Nation.
“The intent is not to get people from Outside, but to get people from each First Nation here in the Yukon learning about their own agreements and their own governments,” said Karen Barnes, vice-president of education and training for the college.
“Hopefully down the road it will lessen the need for Outside expertise.”
The experts who built the current era of self-government in the Yukon are retiring, she said.
“They need to teach the people who are now taking jobs at the entry level but may be earmarked down the road to become administrators.”
Those experts, who fought for land claim agreements and then accompanying self-government deals for the last 40 years, make guest appearances during the program.
“We need to pass on their knowledge,” she said.
The agreements are not bedside reading.
Some of them are 500 pages long. They cover the usually core issues of governing: justice, land, health and lawmaking. But they also have sections unique to First Nations, like trapline concessions and cultural preservation.
And of course, not all First Nations are the same. That’s why students will study a variety of agreements.
The college is adamant the Yukon needs its own course in running a First Nation government.
For the most part, these governments resemble public governments in terms of responsibility, said John Burdek, assistant deputy minister for governance liaison and capacity development in the executive council office.
“The difference is where we merge the values with how you operate a government,” he said.
At one level, that means the kind of cultural distinctions that mainstream Canadians take for granted. First Nations want to dress up their governments in the traditions and practices of their past, much in the same way the Queen’s face is on every coin or the fleur-de-lys figures prominently on Quebec’s flag.
But at a deeper level, First Nations have governing principles that public governments just don’t have, said Burdek.
“When public governments do strategic planning, it can be very stovepipe,” he said.
Because those institutions are so big, departments don’t co-ordinate much. They complete projects with only their own goals in mind.
“In larger governments and larger populations, they’re so many messages coming at you, you really can’t settle on how to serve the majority of folks,” he said.
In other words, First Nations government get a much clearer idea of why they govern compared to just what they govern than modern day public governments.
Strategic planning in a First Nation government is also generated in a general assembly and not necessarily in a large-scale election every four years.
General assemblies have a special impact on how a First Nation government forms its core mission, said Burdek.
So when a First Nation provides a service, the civil servant in question will likely have a better idea of the government’s overall goal.
“They can deliver those programs much more efficiently with their client group – which is their citizens,” he said.
The high stature of elders in a First Nations government also change the dynamic.
While the mandarins and statesmen in a public government might get the boot in a rash of populist fury, the elders provide a strong link to traditions in government decision-making.
“(With public governments,) a lot of it is five-year plans,” said Burdek. “That’s not a very long-term approach.”
Elders ensure a longer-term view is included in decision-making, he said.
“Back at Ta’an, we were doing our strategic planning with one year, five-year and 25-year plans.”
The one-year program is aimed at First Nations who are interested in their government’s function simply as a citizen or as an actual government worker, said Barnes.
The college held a pilot project for the last two years focusing on the Champagne-Aishihik First Nation. Interested citizens were lectured and instructed on how their agreements work and how they can be enforced.
Now, the college has opened the idea to all First Nations – expanding both the student base and the curriculum.
“Each First Nation has been asked to send people,” said Barnes.
Only nine people have enrolled in the program, but interest is growing, she said.
Once an initial batch of students for each First Nation passes through the program, the college will open it to workers in other governments and people generally. The program will help anyone dealing with First Nation governments get a better grip on who they’re working with.
The creation of unique self-governments for each First Nation is a mixed blessing. While it provides a more community-driven institution, government employees are restricted to their homeland in terms of expertise.
For example, it would be a big leap to work in the legal department in a Yukon First Nation and then take a job at an Indian Act band somewhere Outside.
But Yukon College’s mandate includes allowing people a chance to continue education somewhere else. “Start here, go anywhere” is its current motto.
That hasn’t been done yet for the First Nation administration program, but it’s in the works, said Barnes.
“We modelled it after a pretty standard public administration diploma and what we hope is that students can take their own credits somewhere else,” she said.
Ryerson University in Toronto runs a First Nation administration program in an agreement with the First Nations Technical Institute in southern Ontario. The course served as the model for Yukon College’s program and could one day be a lesson in how to make the course compatible with Outside schools.
Barnes is quick to quote Justice Thomas Berger, who spoke at a recent conference in Whitehorse on land-use planning, who said Canada now has 26 self-governing First Nations.
“We are unique in some aspects, but in other aspects we have a lot to share with First Nations looking at self-government,” she said.
To be sure, the marriage between Western-style bureaucracies and First Nations governance principles is bumpy and not all the kinks have been worked out.
But the college hopes that its public administration course can provide a kind of forum for discussions on how the two sides can meld.
“We’re not here to tell them how to govern,” said Barnes.
“We’re here to tell them ‘Here are some practices that exist, here are the agreements that you have.’
“So they bring elders in, historians in and experts on land claims—and they’re having really excellent discussions on how you make it work.”
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