Both men knew it was more than just another election.
Rick O’Brien soundly defeated Ed Schultz on Thursday, taking 50 of 64 votes for Yukon regional chief at the Assembly of First Nations, at the Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly held outside Mayo.
For O’Brien, the incumbent, the vote signaled strong approval after three years in the job within most of CYFN’s 13 voting First Nations.
“I work for them, I say what they want me to say,” said O’Brien, after the result.
“I managed to get money to send all the chiefs to Ottawa on a couple of occasions, and bring in the senior bureaucrats right to Whitehorse so the chiefs can speak directly to the people who influence changes to policy.”
But for Schultz, Thursday’s vote marked the denouement of a story that started when he stepped down as CYFN’s grand chief for an unsuccessful bid for the leadership of the Yukon Liberal party.
“It says I’m washed up,” said Schultz, holding back emotions after ingesting the results.
“I feel like a fish out of water. I’m not good for this role any longer. I’ve done my time, I guess, and I have to go look at what my family and I would like to choose next.”
Schultz’s bid to unseat O’Brien was his first return before CYFN voters after his shock departure from the organization in March.
Few knew how much political damage Schultz had inflicted on himself.
But despite being favoured to win — and being O’Brien’s second cousin — Schultz had O’Brien worried.
“Ed is a very scary competitor,” said O’Brien, also overcome by emotion after the vote.
“I actually told him if he came out one vote ahead of me, I would throw in the towel. I expected it to be a lot closer,” he said.
“Ed has all my respect.”
To win, a candidate must receive more than 60 per cent of the vote.
Both men delivered passionate campaign speeches and answered questions from First Nation chiefs and councils at the general assembly.
But they displayed vastly different styles.
O’Brien, who beat out incumbent Mary Jane Jim in 2003 for Yukon regional chief to the AFN, pragmatically delivered a list of achievements and commitments.
The $5-billion Kelowna accord signed between Association of First Nations chief Phil Fontaine and the former Liberal government in 2005 was a focus of his campaign.
The accord was the culmination of two years of work to address First Nation inequalities in Canada, he said.
But with the Conservatives seeking a majority in the next federal election, work must continue to ensure Stephen Harper’s government makes good on commitments, he said.
“Although funding commitments have been invested into education and housing for the North, we have yet to see additional commitments for aboriginal health and for building capacity in northern communities,” said O’Brien, noting only 10 per cent of the money promised in the accord has arrived.
“These agreements were made with Canada, not with the government of the day. We want to work with the government to implement the Kelowna accord, and make it even better.”
In contrast, Schultz sought to inspire voters to seek change in their communities and themselves.
He hitched his campaign to his political resume and his goal of returning the family to the core in First Nations society.
In the 1980s, Schultz worked with the Kwanlin Dun First Nation on land claims and served on several boards and committees.
He also served as a city councillor in Whitehorse before becoming grand chief of the CYFN in 2000.
Schultz won a second term as grand chief in 2003.
“I’m very proud of those accomplishments and the long-lasting relationships I was able to create,” he said.
“I’m all about building relationships. I’m all about building partnerships. I’m all about trying to find solutions.”
Schultz pointed to First Nations’ alcoholism, drug abuse, unemployment and a lack of participation in the economic system of the Yukon as being long-standing issues he has sought answers to.
“I think the number-one contributing factor that leads to all those social ills is the breakdown of our family unit,” he said.
“Historically our people held a sacred trust to protect their family members.
“But, as a result of colonial policies, residential school experiences and a myriad other things, we have allowed ourselves to weaken those values.”
His decision to step down as grand chief of CYFN to seek the Liberal leadership was on every one’s mind at the general assembly.
Schultz knew that, and decided to face his doubters head-on.
“I know what is on many of your minds,” he said, Wednesday. “‘Well there he is again; does he ever not run for any political office?’”
“Some people think it was a mistake, but I saw an opportunity to make change and I took that opportunity,” he said.
Champagne/Aishihik First Nations chief James Allen asked if each candidate was committed to the AFN position, even though the Yukon territorial election is fast approaching.
“I’m going back to construction if I lose this election, to give First Nations people job opportunities,” said O’Brien.
Schultz was blunt with a question that was obviously aimed at him.
“I have been asked to run in the territorial election,” he said.
But the failure to win the Liberal leadership has convinced him that he “doesn’t get” territorial politics yet, conceded Schultz.
“I am not interested in running in the next territorial election. I’m fully committed,” he said.
A resolution passed unanimously on Thursday to allow White River First Nation chief David Johnny, and three councillors, to vote by proxy.
Beaver Creek is on evacuation notice due to forest fires burning in the area.
Johnny and the council were unable to attend the general assembly as a result.
Jessie Barrett attended the general assembly on behalf of White River, and cast the chief and council’s four votes along with her own in Thursday’s election.
Now that he has been elected to a second term, O’Brien will likely “run and hide” for a little while, he said.
His mother recently passed away, and his first priority is to finish grieving, he said.
“I’ve got to absorb the passing of my mother. I’ve got to absorb winning this. Everything doesn’t seem real to me.”
O’Brien will likely go to his mother’s fish camp to begin healing, he said.
For Schultz, the aftermath of Thursday’s election result is more abstract and difficult to understand.
“Maybe I just need to re-evaluate my role in life,” he said, adding that he may consider a role in the private sector.
Schultz is currently the co-chair of the Yukon’s education reform project.
“Not many people get the opportunity to run in two elections in one year. But to get rejected in two elections in one year is not very satisfactory,” he said, his wife and children by his side.
“It just compounds everything.”