Crystal Schick/Yukon News Book by former Yukon premier Tony Penikett, Hunting the Northern Character, on display at the Whitehorse Public Library on Dec. 11.

Former premier Tony Penikett talks northern character

Penikett was in town to promote his latest book

The room was full. Library staff kept bringing in chairs and still there were people standing, leaning on the snack table, and lounging on the floor.

By the time Tony Penikett started speaking on Dec. 11, there were roughly 60 people packed into the room at Whitehorse Public Library, waiting to hear the former Yukon premier give a presentation on his new book, Hunting the Northern Character.

Penikett, who served as premier from 1997 to 2001, and sat on Whitehorse city council in the 1970s, has done plenty to prepare for this book since retiring from politics.

In addition to working as a mediator and negotiator on Aboriginal rights and devolution issues in the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, he has lectured on Aboriginal treaty negotiations at Simon Fraser and Queen’s University public policy schools. He has also written two TV movies, The Mad Trapper, and La Patrouille Perdu, and the 2006 non-fiction book, Reconciliation: First Nations Treaty Making in British Columbia.

Hunting the Northern Character focuses on moving beyond the stereotypes of the North to investigate what exactly makes up the Arctic identity.

At the beginning of his library presentation, Penikett asserted that the “character-forming events” of the North (he includes Alaska, Russia, Norway and the Yukon in this definition) have been colonization, the Cold War, land rights struggles, the creation of the Arctic Council, security, the climate crisis and current government issues.

One of the current (though not new) government issues he cited was reconciliation. Speaking to audience questions about the potential for community-building in the North, Penikett told the audience that while he supports the federal government’s attempts at reconciliation, he thinks those attempts need to be re-framed.

“My argument is the reconciliation process has been going on in the Canadian North and Alaska and Greenland for the last 50 years, and it has been between Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities,” he said. “And that’s where reconciliation should matter and should happen, is between communities. It’s not the state and some First Nations governments … that’s a wrong perception of reconciliation.”

He said there are chances to do it every day.

When he was on Whitehorse city council in 1977, he said there was a fire one night in the industrial area, which was then known as the Whitehorse Indian Village. When a fire broke out, he said city fire trucks went to fight it, which opened up, for some people, concerns about liability and responsibility of municipal services.

As a result, Penikett said there was a meeting (the first he can remember happening) between city council and the band’s chief and council.

“And it was the most god-awful painful meeting of my life. People sat there in silence with no idea how to talk to each other,” he said.

“It was a dialogue of the death. The worst kind. And that was galvanizing for me in terms of perception of the two divides.”

Penikett cited the Hugh MacLennan novel, Two Solitudes, which is about the divide between the French and English in Canada.

“But in the Arctic the two solitudes are Indigenous and non-Indigenous. And in fact everything that we’ve been doing in land claims and political activities since (the ‘70s) has been trying to close that divide. Bridge that divide and that’s what I’m really trying to make a pitch for, is that to continue.”

Penikett further discussed bridging divides when he talked about the gulf between northerners and southerners, within the context of climate change potentially pushing them together in the coming years.

He cited the book The World in 2050, written by University of California, Los Angeles professor Laurence Smith. In it, Smith suggests that desertification and water shortages around the Equator will push people North at increased rates.

Penikett said this tends to make northerners nervous because there’s already a feeling of powerlessness, particularly around issues of climate change, that northerners have no voice in making decisions that affect them.

“We all know about shifting game populations,” he said, citing the migration of white-tailed deer in to the Yukon, and his own experience speaking with Inuvialuit hunters who have told him that, in recent years, the same places where they’ve always fished for Arctic char are now filled with Pacific coast salmon.

He said his book goes into greater detail on these and other issues around issues of Arctic identity — what has created it up to this point, and what will continue to influence it in the future.

Hunting the Northern Character was published by UBC Press in October 2018.

Contact Amy Kenny at amy.kenny@yukon-news.com

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