CAFN draws federal attention

At their general assembly on the weekend, the Haines Junction-based First Nations committed to a new project that will help heal, employ, and reinstate culture to their citizens, all at once.

The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations have an innovative idea.

At their general assembly on the weekend, the Haines Junction-based First Nations committed to a new project that will help heal, employ, and reinstate culture to their citizens, all at once.

The five-year plan will evolve from a healing bush camp, where members with substance abuse problems will receive a mix of counselling and employment by being tasked to cut trails across the First Nations’ traditional territory.

At first, there will be more counselling than cutting, said Chief James Allen.

But eventually, the healing camp’s participants will be employed to build cabins a day’s hike apart on those trails, Allen added.

Even further down the road, those trails will not only help the First Nations become healthier and reclaim their land in traditional ways, but they will be offered as an opportunity for the First Nations’ eco-tourism entrepreneurs.

At the annual gathering, the aboriginal government also provided updates on a few other ideas.

The First Nations are working on a biomass project, which will turn the area’s large amount of spruce beetle kill into electricity. They’ve also partnered with Habitat for Humanity Yukon to build a triplex in the First Nations’ Takhini River subdivision.

That project, along with work the First Nations are doing with the Bank of Montreal, will not only help house their citizens, but also help them become homeowners.

But all of these ideas took a back seat at the weekend’s meeting when two federal politicians showed up.

It’s not unusual for territorial or federal politicians to make an appearance at these gatherings, but it is for a member of Parliament from another region to show up for the First Nations’ internal meetings.

The federal Aboriginal Affairs critic for the NDP Opposition, Jean Crowder, was invited.

Her connection to the aboriginal group is through Dave Joe, one of the territory’s first aboriginal lawyers and a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

When she traveled from her riding of Nanimo-Cowichan in B.C. to sit in on the meeting, the dismal forecast for this year’s Yukon River salmon run was at the back of everyone’s mind. A debate about changes to the Fisheries Act between Crowder and Yukon’s Conservative MP, Ryan Leef, took much of the spotlight.

“The Fisheries Act is important to us because it will affect habitat,” said Allen. “If development happens, there won’t be as stringent a process for industry to go through.”

The First Nations, which traditionally harvest chinook, sockeye and chum salmon in the Klukshu River, as well as numerous lake fish, have tasked their legal advisor to look over the changes for the federal act, which were included and passed in this year’s broad budget bill.

“But the problem is, we don’t know what the changes will be,” said Crowder. “The legislation set out a framework, but we don’t know what the regulations will be yet. So we don’t know how they’re going to play out.”

The changes to the federal act essentially changed the focus from protecting fish, to protecting fisheries.

This could mean that any lakes, streams, creeks and tributaries that do not support a recognized recreational, aboriginal or commercial fishery will not be protected.

Allen raised other issues with his federal audience.

Changes to employment insurance could threaten a lot of marginalized workers who have finally found steady work through an employment opportunities program, he said.

“There will be a broader impact than just fisheries,” said Allen about the largest omnibus bill in Canadian history.

The chief also brought up the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development’s new “fiscal harmonization policy.” This policy would calculate funding arrangements from the federal government to each recognized, individual, Canadian First Nation with a formula, as was the case under the Indian Act.

Yukon First Nation leaders, like Allen, are furious. That policy threatens to reverse decades of negotiations, self-government agreements and land claims, which all detail the need to negotiate funding agreements.

The First Nation also told its guests about the need for immediate action on land-use planning.

The longer it takes to put a plan in place, the more conflicts come up between traditional land use and trapping, and parcels of land sold and developed by other levels of government, said Allen.

“Overall, it went really well,” said Allen about the first gathering held in the First Nations’ new cultural centre in Haines Junction. “We’re doing OK.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at