The leadership of the Council of Yukon First Nations can’t force Chief Eddie Skookum to resign, says Ruth Massie.
The council does not support violence in any form, but it is obligated to support the decision of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation to retain its leader, said Grand Chief Massie on Wednesday, speaking to a rally of people demanding that Skookum be ousted.
“It is not within our authority to make any decision or determine whether or not any chief has the mandate to represent a specific community,” she said just prior to a council leadership meeting. “It is the authority of that community to make that decision or determination in accordance with its constitution.”
Skookum used to be a respected leader, said Josie O’Brien, who helped organized the rally.
Now O’Brien’s embarrassed by all the territory’s aboriginal leaders.
“I started losing my faith in my leaders because no one would stand up and speak about it,” said the 25-year-old. “There’s so much silence that it becomes acceptable; this norm in the Yukon. We’re trying to break this silence – a lot of people around the world are trying to break the silence against violence … it’s really hard when there’s so many people trying to create this positive change and then something like this happens.”
Until late in the afternoon yesterday, the leadership of the Council of Yukon First Nations had remained completely silent on the issue.
They said they wanted the chance to sit down with Skookum before commenting. Their entire statement was one sentence:
“The CYFN leadership does not condone violence of any sort against women, children, men or elders.”
Yesterday evening, an e-mail was sent out to all CYFN employees, warning them of the rally and telling them to show up for work either early or late and that the back door would be open for them to use, said three employees, who asked to remain anonymous.
But some workers joined the rally.
“Let’s just say I’m taking my lunch a little bit early today,” one joked.
However, others denied the existence of the e-mail as they walked past the rally to the front door.
Women’s organizations have been criticized for their silence on the issue.
But both the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council and the Yukon Status of Women Council said that was unfair.
There is no point in asking why women’s groups have been silent, said Charlotte Hrenchuck from the Status of Women Council.
They haven’t been silent, it’s a fallacy, she said, noting news releases issued after Skookum’s conviction in the fall.
Why it is the women’s organizations that are always being criticized? she said.
“Where are the men’s organizations? Where are the men?” she said. “This is a man’s problem of violence against women, yet it’s the victim’s who are being called to stand up.”
There were several men who participated in the rally alongside O’Brien, who is a victim herself. She was in an unhealthy, violent relationship and she said violence has been a large part of her life, as it is for many aboriginal people.
All First Nations are healing from historical genocide, but it is the obligation of leaders to make it clear to everyone – old, young, aboriginal or not – how to heal properly, she said.
Why won’t Skookum fully acknowledge what he did and step down so he can take the time he needs to heal, she said.
And why did supporters cheer him like a hero on November 6, said O’Brien.
She’s faced hostility on the issue since she’s raised it, as have her uncle Joseph and aunt Lorraine.
“People come up to me saying, ‘You’re not even Little Salmon First Nation!’ And I’m like, it doesn’t matter, it still affects me! I’m a Yukoner – it affects me. I’m a woman – it affects me. I’m First Nation – it affects me. I’m part of this world and every time something like that happens, in someway, somehow it affects us all.”
There will be problems in the future, she said.
“Eddie has set this precedent. If this happens down the road when there’s another leader around who’s my age, seeing this happening right now, they can say, ‘Oh, Eddie did it. It’s fine.’”
No precedent has been set, said Victoria Fred, president of the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council.
“We have some really good chiefs sitting around the table and we hold them to high standards,” she said, adding she is disappointed in the decision of Skookum’s community to keep him.
“They are not holding up standards we feel are important and it’s unacceptable,” she said. “I am disappointed and conflicted with the decision because I have family there, I grew up there, I know the chief. The right thing would have been for him to step aside.”
However, the fact women’s groups aren’t in the media criticizing the community and lambasting Skookum does not mean they are not working to end violence against women, said Fred.
“We are trying to shed light on the silent issues and we are working on many other things,” she said. “We applaud those who are speaking out on this and we’re trying to figure out ways so this doesn’t happen again in the future.”
The Grand Chief’s remarks are not enough, said Lorraine O’Brien, the woman who started this fight.
“They say they don’t condone violence, but they’re there sitting with that so-called chief,” she said, filing out of the CYFN offices and back onto the street during the rally, placard in hand: “We will not give up this fight.”
Skookum was expected to attend the meeting, but by 9:30 a.m. he had still not shown up.
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at