Drawing down the Dempster

UPDATED VERSION: The Yukon’s northern First Nations want to take over maintenance of the Dempster Highway. By wresting control of this work from the territorial government, these First Nations hope to provide jobs for their members and make a tidy profit.


Yukon’s northern First Nations want to take over maintenance of the Dempster highway.

By wresting control of this work from the territorial government, these First Nations hope to provide jobs for their members and make a tidy profit.

To date, the territory hasn’t been hot on the idea. Officials object it may mean messing with their union’s collective agreement.

Not so, says Laurie Butterworth, president of the Yukon Employees’ Union. On Monday, he joined Simon Mervyn, chief of the Na-cho Nyak Dun, and Eddie Taylor, chief of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, to announce what they hailed as a “historic agreement.”

John Gordon, national president of the Public Service Alliance of Canada, was also on hand.

The deal states that none of the parties has a problem with First Nations taking on maintenance contracts.

“It all depends on government now,” said Butterworth. “They won’t be able to use the collective agreement as a barrier any more.”

This could create two scenarios for workers. Under one, territorial government workers could find themselves suddenly working for a new boss: the First Nation.

In that case, workers would continue to be unionized under their existing collective agreement, said Butterworth. “It keeps our collective agreement in place, which is what we like to do when the government tries to sell stuff off.”

Otherwise, displaced government workers could see themselves transferred to jobs elsewhere in government, said Butterworth.

The announcement didn’t sit well with one unhappy union member, who phoned the Yukon News on Monday afternoon. She questioned how secure any transferred job would be, when many First Nations make a point of priority-hiring their own members.

“Have you ever heard of anything so crazy in your life?” she asked. “Who’s to say that won’t happen to social workers tomorrow? Or conservation officers? And on and on.

“That’s our union? That’s where are dues are going?”

Each year, maintenance work on the Dempster employs approximately 30 people, said Butterworth. The Department of Highways expects to spend nearly $6 million in wages on maintaining the highway this year.

This may surprise anyone who’s driven the unpaved, 670-kilometre road, which connects Dawson City to Inuvik. It is surfaced with gravel and shards of sharp shale, which have punctured many a tire.

The chiefs have their eyes on more than just roadwork. Maintenance work on local airports and government landfills may also be drawn-down later, said Mervyn.

“It’s time to get moving,” he said.

The territory has approximately 200 workers in Dawson City and between 50 to 80 workers in Mayo, said Butterworth.

Under the Umbrella Final Agreement, the territorial government committed to aim to hire a proportional number of First Nations workers.

That’s 25 per cent of the workforce, which Taylor reckons to be equal to $75 million in annual wages. The territory’s only halfway to meeting that goal, said Taylor.

Until now, when First Nations talk about drawing down government services, they usually have in mind the ambitious tasks of running their own schools, child welfare services or police forces.

Maintenance jobs are a far more modest goal. It probably helped that both Mervyn and Taylor worked on roadcrews before seeking political office.

The Dempster slices through the territory of another Yukon First Nation that was conspicuously absent from Monday’s news conference: the Vuntut Gwitchin of Old Crow. Chief Norma Kassi, who was elected in November, said she hadn’t had much time to consider drawing down maintenance contracts, but “that’s something we’ll be looking at in the future.”

Chiefs and union bosses are rarely seen in the same room. No First Nation office is unionized, and neither Mervyn nor Taylor have any plans to change that for the time being.

Both the Na-cho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondek Hwech’in share a chilly relationship with the territorial government at present. It’s largely due to their advocacy to protect the Peel watershed, which puts them at odds with the Yukon Party’s support of mining.

Both chiefs were snubbed by Mining Minister Patrick Rouble when they went to see him in November. They received similar treatment that day from Highways Minister Archie Lang when they planned to discuss drawing down Dempster maintenance, said Mervyn.

Contact John Thompson at johnt@yukon-news.com.

Just Posted

The Fireweed Market in Shipyards Park will open on May 13. Joel Krahn/Yukon News
Whitehorse’s Fireweed Market opens May 13

The Fireweed Market will return with ‘exciting’ new and returning vendors

Ron Rousseau holds a sign saying ‘It’s time for a cultural shift’ during the Yukoners: Raise Your Voice Against Misogyny rally on May 11. (John Tonin/Yukon News)
Protest held to condemn Yukon Party MLAs’ texts

A rally was held outside of legislature to condemn the inappropriate texts messages of Yukon Party MLAs Stacey Hassard and Wade Istchenko.


Wyatt’s World for May 12, 2021.… Continue reading

Health Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Brendan Hanley announced youth vaccination clinics planned for this summer. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon government file)
Vaccination campaign planned for Yukon youth age 12 and up

The Pfizer vaccine was approved for younger people on May 5.

Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley announced two new cases of COVID-19 on May 11. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Two new cases of COVID-19 reported, one in the Yukon and one Outside

One person is self-isolating, the other will remain Outside until non-infectious

Neil Hartling, the Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon president, left, said the new self-isolation guidelines for the Yukon are a ‘ray of hope’ for tourism operators. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News file)
Yukon tourism operators prepared for ‘very poor summer’ even with relaxed border rules

Toursim industry responds to new guidelines allowing fully vaccinated individuals to skip mandatory self-isolation.

A lawsuit has been filed detailing the resignation of a former Yukon government mine engineer. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A year after resigning, former chief mine engineer sues Yukon government

Paul Christman alleges a hostile work environment and circumvention of his authority led him to quit

Former Liberal MLA Pauline Frost speaks to reporters outside the courthouse on April 19. One of the voters accused of casting an invalid vote has been granted intervenor status in the lawsuit Frost filed last month. (Haley Ritchie/Yukon News)
Voters named in Pauline Frost election lawsuit ask to join court proceedings

The judge granted Christopher Schafer intervenor status

Haley Ritchie/Yukon News file
File photo of the legislative assembly. The previous spring sitting began on March 4 but was interrupted due to the election.
Throne speech kicks off short spring legislature sitting

The government will now need to pass the budget.

The deceased man, found in Lake LaBerge in 2016, had on three layers of clothing, Dakato work boots, and had a sheathed knife on his belt. Photo courtesy Yukon RCMP
RCMP, Coroner’s Office seek public assistance in identifying a deceased man

The Yukon RCMP Historical Case Unit and the Yukon Coroner’s Office are looking for public help to identify a man who was found dead in Lake LaBerge in May 2016.

Yukon Zinc’s Wolverine minesite has created a mess left to taxpayers to clean up, Lewis Rifkind argues. This file shot shows the mine in 2009. (John Thompson/Yukon News file)
Editorial: The cost of the Wolverine minesite

Lewis Rifkind Special to the News The price of a decent wolverine… Continue reading

Letters to the editor.
Today’s mailbox: border opening and Yukon Party texts

Dear Premier Sandy Silver and Dr Hanley, Once again I’m disheartened and… Continue reading

Fire chief Jason Everett (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City launches emergency alert system

The city is calling on residents and visitors to register for Whitehorse Alert

Most Read