Chiefs give touring MPs an earful

If Ottawa wants to see the North's economy grow, it needs to get serious about implementing First Nation land-claim deals. That's the pitch made by four Yukon chiefs to Parliament's standing committee on aboriginals and northern development on Wednesday.

If Ottawa wants to see the North’s economy grow, it needs to get serious about implementing First Nation land-claim deals.

The committee is trying to suss out the big obstacles to economic growth.

Top of the chiefs’ list of hurdles is the federal government’s reluctance to push forward on various land-claim commitments.

“For the most part, Canada has vacated the field in the North,” Mike Smith, chief of the Kwanlin Dun, told the committee, which spent two days in Whitehorse as part of a tour of Canada’s territories.

When chiefs try to raise issues with federal ministers during visits to Ottawa, they’re told to bring it up with their counterparts in the territorial government.

“The door is closed,” said Smith.

Meanwhile, the Yukon government is “not capable or willing” to meet these obligations, he said.

In this way, First Nations find themselves “whipsawed” by two levels of governments, said Brenda Sam, chief of the Ta’an Kwach’an.

Without adequate funding to run their offices, First Nations have difficulty providing programs and services to their members. Yet when they ask for more money, they’re told to first address their capacity problems.

“That’s a catch-22,” said Mark Wedge, chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. “Canada needs to start treating us as governments, not just as Indians.”

This “chronic underfunding” also means qualified workers often leave for jobs with the territorial bureaucracy, which is able to offer better pay and benefits, said Wilfred Sheldon, chief of the Kluane First Nation.

“It’s a continual capacity problem,” he said.

It’s been suggested that First Nations fix the problem by dipping into funds for health and education programs. But this would be “irresponsible,” he said.

Big problems also exist with land-use planning, said Sam. The territorial government continues to sell off First Nation land without adequate consultation, she said, pointing to the Supreme Court of Canada case underway that pits the territorial government against the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation over a disputed agricultural lot lease.

“What land will be left for the future?” she asked.

First Nations would become more competitive in the marketplace if Ottawa sweetened some corporate tax incentives, the chiefs said.

Businesses directly owned by First Nations lose their tax benefits if they operate off traditional territory. Smith would like to see that changed.

“That’s a huge issue for us,” he said.

Joint partnerships between First Nations and private enterprises should be eligible for tax benefits, too, said Wedge.

Personal taxes need reform, too, said the chiefs.

Elders have difficulty tapping into the Canada Pension Plan because the government classifies them as Indians, said Wedge. “It’s not fair,” he said.

And while leaders of other levels of government are able to write off travel expenses, chiefs cannot, said Wedge.

“We’re just asking to be treated the same as other governments,” he said.

The cash crunch First Nations face even means they’re unable to hire lawyers to write new laws for them, said Smith.

“It’s one law a year, basically,” he said.

Committee chair Bruce Stanton said the chiefs’ concerns would be given “very serious consideration.”

Meetings will continue in Ottawa until March. A report will be released sometime in early spring.

Contact John Thompson at