time for democracy in teslin

It's hard to believe that there's much of a discussion to be had in Canada today about the merits of democratically electing the head of a government.


It’s hard to believe that there’s much of a discussion to be had in Canada today about the merits of democratically electing the head of a government. Yet this debate has once again ignited among members of the Teslin Tlingit Council, which is unique in the Yukon for clinging to its clan-based system of selecting its chief.

We suppose the only real defence of the current system is that it’s tradition. That may sound flimsy, but it would be foolish to underestimate the allure of traditions, particularly when memories are still fresh of your culture being marginalized and suppressed.

Let’s also acknowledge that traditions aren’t easy to change, even long after they fail to align with today’s values. After all, Canada continues to have an unelected Senate, and the Queen of England remains Canada’s hereditary chief, so to speak, at least symbolically.

But none of this changes the fact that Teslin’s electoral system is neither wise nor fair. In it, clans collectively pick – in ways that remain murky to our understanding – their councillors, as well as delegates who go on to vote for candidates for chief. This concentrates power in the hands of unelected clan bosses, and it disenfranchises a number of First Nation members who lack a clan. Simply giving one vote to each member would be far more equitable.

The protesters pushing for electoral reform also have another beef – as they see it, not enough First Nation members work in their government office. This concern is understandable – when members voted to strike a land-claim agreement, many likely didn’t envision that important administrative jobs would often continue to be made by outsiders. To see otherwise must seem like an injustice.

But this thinking is also wrongheaded. In Yukon First Nation offices, this preoccupation over who does what job isn’t limited to turfing non-members in favour of members. It’s not unusual to hear about employees being sacked for not belonging to the “right” family, after a new chief and council rises to power.

This is often detrimental to the goal of having a well-run government. It drives away qualified workers – including educated First Nation workers – to less politicized environments, like the federal or Yukon government. This surely contributes to what is politely known as the “capacity gap” in First Nation governance.

At the heart of the populist push to hire locally is a misconception of the role of government. Its main purpose shouldn’t be to provide jobs; it should be to deliver services. That means the most important qualification for any government job should be merit, not where you’re from. What’s more important, after all: that an official is responsive to your concerns, or that the worker at the end of the phone is your relative?

The current chief, Carl Sidney, rode to power in part by promising more jobs for his people. If he’s now being targeted by protesters for failing to deliver, it’s unlikely it’s for lack of trying. Instead, this suggests that there simply aren’t many government jobs being performed by outsiders that locals are currently qualified to do.

If Sidney and his political foes want to make a real difference, they could start by giving their heads a shake and focus on the real problem: the big shortfall in First Nation students graduating from high school. Develop a community-based push to ensure kids stay in school, and one day Teslin’s First Nation members won’t need to choose between a merit-based bureaucracy and a representative one.


Clarification: This editorial has been revised to better reflect the clan-based process of picking councillors and the chief.

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