A First Nation’s quest for self sufficiency

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COMMENTARY

by Justin Ferbey

This month TEDx Whitehorse hosted its inaugural session themed on “Breaking Trail.” My fellow Yukoners and guests spoke of achievement, empowerment, discovery, and energy all in effort to inspire ideas.

I was honoured to provide the first talk called, Our Carcross/Tagish First Nation Story: Arrival, Survival and Revival. Here is our story.

We sought to bring balance back to a relationship where conflict between our nations’ leaders could be approached as an opportunity, not simply as something to win or lose. We needed to acknowledge that the strength of our country lies in recognizing we are in this together and not everyone simply for themselves.

We have lived this way since time immemorial. As Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt, our First Nations peoples arrived on the coast of Alaska. Long before Jesus was born, we separated from the coastal tribes and our six clans moved to Southern Lakes of the Yukon once the glaciers recessed. That was 7,500 years ago.

Since then trade has always been a part of our culture. A recent example: in 1885, William Ogilvie, the Canadian Dominion surveyor, hired our clan member Skookum Jim and others to pack his seven tonnes of equipment over the Chilkoot Trail from Alaska to the Yukon. The same year, Skookum Jim established the White Pass railway route. 

Two years later, Skookum Jim led his nephew, sister and George Carmack to strike gold at Bonanza Creek, leading to the arrival of 30,000 prospectors into the Klondike.

We survived the gold rush, but the next century was less certain.

The ensuing 100 years involved a state-sponsored effort to assimilate all First Nations by attempting to “remove the Indian from each child.” Accelerating the horror, the Choulta Residential School was built in Carcross in 1910, beginning the full assault on our culture.

In 1973, Yukon First Nations, determined to regain our rights, presented prime minister Pierre Trudeau with the document Together Today for our Children Tomorrow. This started 30 years of negotiations to reinstate our rights and land title. In 2005, Carcross/Tagish First Nation joined 10 other Yukon First Nations to become self-governing.

Now we need to govern: levy taxes, craft legislation and grow the economy.

We established a corporation with the lofty vision to create a local year-around private sector economy on our negotiated settlement lands. We dream of improving our community’s socio-economic levels through business activity.

We created a strategy which includes mountain bike trails, a retail development, accommodations and a waterfront residential subdivision.

Our Montana Mountain “single track to success” initiative now has 65 kilometres of world-class mountain bike trails hand-cut by local First Nation youth. On the surface it was seemingly all about bikes and hikes.

But the trails have also been about strengthening our youths’ relationship with our lands while mentoring life skills like persistence, team building, and work ethic. These attributes are our cultural values.

We have broken ground on the Carcross Commons Commercial Village to service the 100,000 summer guests who arrive by planes, trains and automobiles and now include bikers, hikers, and wind boarders. This past summer the first business opened in Skookum Jim’s refurbished home. Next we will work on accommodating our guests.

After the summer season, our hope is that our new subdivision on the shores of Lake Bennett will see businesses cater to the new and old citizens.

Presto, a year-round economy! Self-government can be net benefit in the most unromantic of ways – economically.

Is it that easy?

This winter we passed a humble but notable milestone. Our company, for the first time, has provided local employment year around. Our people have been constructing our retail village all winter. We now dream our economic efforts in time will improve our community’s socio-economic bottom line.

We envision year-round jobs will continue to be our community’s reality. We can now look to train our young people in the trades right in Carcross. This is a big C-change.

In 2008, I wrote in a Globe and Mail op-ed, “We have negotiated for the opportunity to flourish and see our people live a life sought by other Canadians: to be safe, healthy and proud of their nation. The tools, the timing and the opportunity are there: the choice is ours.”

We have decided to succeed.

Justin Ferbey is the CEO of the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation and a citizen of the First Nation.

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