troubling questions from the southeast

Here’s something for you to chew on. No Yukon-based Kaska First Nation has signed a land claim agreement with Ottawa.

Here’s something for you to chew on.

No Yukon-based Kaska First Nation has signed a land claim agreement with Ottawa.

In fact, collectively, they are suing the federal government, a move that immediately puts the kibosh on any further talks with Ottawa.

With no land claim, the First Nations remain wards of Indian Affairs.

It is an untenable state of affairs.

Since the ‘90s, the Kaska have strong-armed millions from the Yukon government by threatening to derail development in the resource-rich southeast.

The region is the territory’s breadbasket. Rich in base metals, gas, trees, tourism opportunities — it has it all.

And successive Yukon governments have tried, with little success, to tap its wealth.

On the eve of the territorial election in 2000, with input from then-backbencher Dennis Fentie (though he now denies it), Piers McDonald’s NDP government gave the Kaska its portion of the Kotaneelee royalty fund, monies that were supposed to be held in trust until the First Nation signed its land claim.

McDonald and Fentie wanted to get some action going in the southeast.

But it didn’t work.

Fentie was elected, but McDonald’s government lost.

And the decision to hand over the royalty cheque early removed a strong incentive for Kaska leaders to sign land claim agreements.

As premier, one of Fentie’s first decisions was to appoint Allen Edzerza, the Kaska’s former chief of negotiations, to tackle government-to-government relations with First Nations.

Again, Fentie wanted some action in the southeast.

Edzerza’s first move was to draft the now-lapsed bilateral agreement with the Kaska. It was a historic givaway that essentially handed the Kaska people control over their traditional territory, something that all First Nations in the territory coveted, but which Ottawa and the territory had steadfastly refused to concede.

That one-off deal contributed to the defeat of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation land claim agreement — if the Kaska get all that, why should we settle for a sliver of settlement land, they reasoned.

It was the first such rejection in recent memory. That land claim debacle was fixed in a hastily concocted do-over election.

The Kaska sailed on merrily.

In the last three years alone, Kaska First Nations, and their related groups, received more than $2 million in grants from the Yukon government.

That’s almost $500,000 more than first estimated in 2003.

Is there any substantial development in the southeast?

No.

Can the public obtain budgets and reports showing how the money was spent?

Only by filing an access to information request, The News was told by Energy, Mines and Resources officials.

Why?

Former Liard First Nation chief Daniel Morris confined and brutally assaulted his estranged common-law wife. Charged and convicted, he was stripped of his position and sent to jail.

In the aftermath of that conviction, the First Nation’s new chief, Liard McMillan, inherited an organization that was financially crippled, in spite of the generous Yukon government grants.

By all accounts, he’s trying to fix things.

Last year, McMillan instituted emergency measures to ensure the First Nation’s survival, laying off non-essential staff, suspending all travel and instituting pay cuts among remaining staff, including the chief and council.

As well, the new administration discovered that in fiscal year 2003, Morris, assorted councillors and cronies shared more than $300,000 in interest-free personal loans from band coffers during his last year as chief.

Currently, at McMillan’s request, the RCMP is conducting a criminal investigation into the First Nation’s affairs.

Neither the First Nation nor the RCMP will discuss the matter.

McMillan should be applauded for his efforts.

But this ongoing affair raises some troubling questions.

What, specifically, have the millions the territory poured into Kaska territory achieved?

Where has the money gone?

How much, if any, is missing?

With the matter under police investigation, the answers won’t come fast.

But they should concern us all. (RM)