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.

UPDATED VERSION:

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.

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