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COVID-19 and reopening dominate talks at Yukon Forum

“What I heard from the chiefs was really positive”
Grand Chief Peter Johnston, left, and Yukon Premier Sandy Silver at the virtual Yukon Forum press conference in Whitehorse on May 14. (Alistair Maitland/Government of Yukon)

The premier, cabinet, the Council of Yukon First Nations’ grand chief and First Nations chiefs met virtually on May 14 for the territory’s first online Yukon Forum, held using video conferencing software.

Unsurprisingly, this forum focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and how the Yukon government and First Nations can work together.

Peter Johnston, the grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations and Premier Sandy Silver answered questions about the forum on May 14.

Silver said he missed the face-to-face meeting but this forum was historic nonetheless since it took place on all traditional territories at once.

The meeting centred on the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, keeping people safe and how to reopen the economy.

Johnston said there were essential gaps that needed to be addressed regarding the jurisdiction of self-governing First Nations.

While there are mechanisms in place to ensure the First Nations have a say and can enact legislation regarding settlement lands, traditional territory and how citizens can move through them, he explained that none of the First Nations governments have ever had to deal with a pandemic in the last 25 years.

Many realized there needed to be something in place to guide government operations, protecting citizens and partnerships with the territory. This way, both First Nations and the territorial government can better stand together in a response.

He said this is important because it is likely this will not be the only crisis First Nations and the territorial government will face.

“That is one glaring example of what we need to deal with moving forward,” Johnston said.

Another gap centres on continuing with governmental responsibilities while adhering to the social distancing principles. This can affect the ways a government can engage with citizens and how the territory can consult First Nations.

Silver added that the Civil Emergency Measures Act dates back to 1984, which does not recognize self-government. He said he hopes to address this shortcoming in order to better work with First Nations.

The premier outlined one concern, centered on who is performing the jobs the officers patrolling the border would normally do. Silver said that the government looks to various personnel like conservation officers, land officers and liquor officers to fill in for people transferred to border monitoring.

Johnston feels that First Nations have adapted well to life under the pandemic and that the community understands the severity of the virus and is encouraging citizens to take safety in account.

“We’ve always rebounded well,” Johnston said.

He wants to see the seriousness in the pandemic response continued, as First Nations are a more vulnerable demographic with their elders.

Silver said he understands that First Nations are concerned about the health and safety of elders and rural communities, but said that the territory needs to continue planning for reopening.

“What I heard from the chiefs was really positive,” Silver said.

With the Yukon borders shut for the foreseeable future, he said that this could mean putting more Yukon contractors to work. Silver explained this would be a good way to come out stronger when the pandemic ends as money would be flowing and staying in the territory.

As for the reopening plan, Johnston said it is important to ensure that Yukon First Nations companies are given opportunities through procurement, allowing First Nations to rebound as the economy recovers.

Silver said his government has been updating and speaking with First Nations and municipalities frequently on developing the reopening plan.

“We’re looking forward to being engaged in that reopening plan and continuing the partnership to ensure the communities are in lockstep,” Silver said.

He explained that before the pandemic, Yukon had the lowest unemployment rate and it was easier for everyone to travel. Under the pandemic, local companies have to be relied on more since Outside travel is more difficult, Silver said.

Contact Gord Fortin at