Four candidates for national chief of the Assembly of First Nations were in Whitehorse July 10 answering questions on topics including food security, education, and the Porcupine caribou herd.
It was the first time a forum of AFN national chief candidates has been held in the territory.
Candidates Sheila North, Miles Richardson, Katherine Whitecloud and incumbent Perry Bellegarde fielded questions from the audience as well as via email and online.
A fifth candidate, Russ Diabo, was not present at the forum.
Kluane First Nation Chief Bob Dickson questioned candidates about what they would do to help Yukon First Nations students who struggle in the education system.
Federal funding for First Nations education is often based on being “on-reserve,” he said. There are no reserves in the Yukon and so Yukon First Nations cannot access the money.
“Canada has spent over $2.6 billion since 2016 on education and the Yukon hasn’t had any access to those dollars. So we want for help on breaking those barriers,” he said.
Dickson said as it stands money gets passed through to the territorial government and “the First Nations have to fight for those funds.”
Bellegarde said federal money has to go directly to First Nations. That means lobbying for policy changes at the federal level.
“You’ve got to get that direct fiscal relationship,” he said.
North, the grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said AFN has to be “more assertive” when it comes to education issues.
“We know that this government says a lot of good things but they haven’t done a lot of good things because if they had you would feel it in the Yukon here,” she said.
“You would feel the impacts of investments in education and we haven’t seen that. Even with a friendly government like the Liberals, AFN hasn’t been able to push, to the point where our kids deserve better.”
Richardson, of the Haida Nation, said he “absolutely” believes the Yukon First Nations should have jurisdiction over their education.
Whitecloud, of the Dakota Ojibway Tribal Council in Manitoba, said all students deserve equal levels of funding. She said there are discrepancies between how much funding goes to different First Nations.
“That has to be addressed because what it has become is those who tow the line with the federal government, those who do what they want them to do under their own agreements, get the money and that’s a human rights issue right there.”
Kwanlin Dün First Nation Chief Doris Bill asked the candidates what they would do to help “force” the federal government to implement a program to get affordable nutritious food to northerners.
“We have tried and tried. It’s frustrating,” she said.
North said the current Nutrition North program funds companies to bring food north but those companies don’t always pass that on to customers.
She believes there’s a better way if First Nations are given control.
“Again it’s about jurisdiction. We have to be able to say how our food is distributed to our people.”
Bellegarde, who is from Little Black Bear First Nation in Saskatchewan, said there needs to be a “specific, focused lobby strategy” and an “innovative” piece that looks at growing and sustaining food in the North.
Whitecloud said some northern First Nations in her area have come up with ways to farm. She suggested nations should be sharing ideas with each other.
Lorraine Netro of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation spoke about the potential impact of the American government’s plans to start drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge including the sacred calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd. Drilling is something First Nations including the Gwich’in Nation have been lobbying against for decades.
Bellegrade said the issue needs to be brought to the international arena including within the United Nations.
“We also have to look at a legal strategy, a political strategy and even on-the-ground activism,” he said.
Richardson pledged his support.
“I know there is common ground right across this country for us to stand together. But also Canadians need to hear your story and Americans.”
The election of the next AFN national chief will take place July 25 as part of the Annual General Assembly in Vancouver. Each of the 14 Yukon First Nations will get one vote on election day. In total, 634 First Nations are eligible to cast a vote.
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