The first question put to the six candidates running for chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation at Wednesday’s forum in Whitehorse received resounding applause.
It was about land, more specifically, the overlap in territory the First Nation has with other Yukon First Nations and the B.C. government.
All candidates said that overlap issues should have been figured out back when the First Nation signed its land claim in 2005.
The majority also agreed that overlap with other Yukon First Nations should be settled by sitting down at the same table and working it out.
“We’re sovereign down there (in B.C.),” said candidate Danny Cresswell, the current deputy chief.
“Until we get an agreement with B.C., it is ours,” he said. “We need to go down and tell them who we are.”
The First Nation’s sovereignty also came up repeatedly as five of the six candidates fielded questions well into the night. The sixth, Shirley Beattie, had to leave after her opening address due to a family emergency.
Although the First Nation held its first all-candidates forum in Carcross last week, it decided to also have one in Whitehorse because about a third of its 900 citizens live in the city.
Candidate Stanley Jim Jr., a carpenter by trade, talked about what was wrong with the First Nation’s past governments.
“It just doesn’t seem like they have been spending the money in the right places,” he said.
Candidate George Shephard, who has sat on the executive council for his clan for 16 years, also expressed frustration with past governments.
“We talk and talk and talk but nothing gets better, it just gets worse,” he said. His top priorities are housing, youth and elders.
“We should be making our own log homes and have our own sawmill,” he said. “We have our own people in our own hometown and we don’t even use them.”
He said it doesn’t make sense to purchase poor-quality homes when the community has the capacity to build its own.
Candidate Eileen Wally said she wants to see more unity.
“It’s important for our young people to see us all working together,” she said. “Together we can move mountains.”
Wally, who worked for the First Nation for years, said it’s time to stop passing the pain and dysfunction from residential schools through the generations.
Another candidate, Donnie Smith, who works for White Pass, advocated for a youth council and the re-establishment of a Tlingit Tribal Council.
Cresswell focused on the economy.
“I want to build our own economy in Carcross,” he said. “A downtown, subdivisions … jobs – and not just nine to five but people can develop their own businesses … taxes … I want our people to be wealthy.
“We’ve implemented as much as we need to move forward in a big way. Until we become our own economy, we’ll be dependent on handouts from the feds. I believe we can do it in four years. And when the day comes when we have to part ways (with Ottawa), we can depend on our own economy.”
The First Nation is currently in talks with Ottawa over its financial transfer agreement.
Former chief Mark Wedge reached a standoff over finances with Ottawa in the spring of 2011.
The First Nation is scheduled to negotiate a new agreement every five years. On March 31 its past agreement ran out.
Cresswell has been able to negotiate a six-month extension, but if a new agreement is not reached, the First Nation may be in serious financial trouble come September.
The citizens who attended the forum were also concerned about the economy.
One elder warned that oil and gas development will be back on the table after the temporary ban runs out. Earlier this month Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers announced nothing would happen until after the next election.
“Are we ready to deal with that?” the elder asked. “We need a flow of money to sustain self government. Will we get royalties coming back from all the mining in our traditional territory? If we don’t, we won’t have much of a self government.”
Jim Jr. answered this with a call for better rules and regulations for companies hoping to extract resources for their land.
Shephard called for joint ownership of mineral development and more training to involve Carcross/Tagish citizens.
“Why are we living in the cheapest houses if we could own a piece of it all,” he said. “That way, we’ll always have revenue.”
Wally urged the need for better benefit agreements with the mining companies already working in the region.
Smith toyed with the idea of drilling for oil, provided the environment could be protected given its massive economic return.
He also noted how his employer, White Pass, has cut back another train, adding that tourism may not be sustainable.
Cresswell warned about the destructiveness of resource extraction and asked whether it was worth it. He advocated for the community to finish its land use plan and reminded the gathering that non-renewable means you only get one shot.
The land and living traditionally is something he believes strongly in, he said.
“It’s just a part of us. Our land is our wealth.”
If elected, each candidate had a different plan on what to work on first.
Not surprisingly, Cresswell mentioned settling the financial agreement with Ottawa, while Shephard called for the First Nation’s constitution to be reworked to better support their rights.
“I just don’t see how every time we want something, we have to go to court,” he said. “We have to start standing up for our First Nation and saying, ‘This is it. This is as far as you’re going to push us.’”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at