A Vuntut Gwitchin citizen and her daughter say they’ve been mistreated by the government after it moved their family home in Old Crow, against their wishes, to make room for the construction of a new elders’ complex. (Yukon News file)

Family, Vuntut Gwitchin government at odds over house moved for elders’ complex

A Vuntut Gwitchin citizen and her daughter say they’ve been mistreated by the government after it moved their family home in Old Crow, against their wishes, to make room for the construction of a new elders’ complex.

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s chief, however, says that the First Nation has been following rules and laws while trying to accommodate the family.

Victoria Blake, 77, lived in Old Crow until about two years ago, when she moved to Whitehorse due to health issues.

Prior to that, she told the News, she had lived in the same home in Old Crow since the 1980s.

“I lived in that place for 40 years, I want to keep that building for my grandchildren if they need a place,” she said in an interview June 30.

The Vuntut Gwitchin government relocated the house to another lot last month, removing the porch and an attachment to do so, to prepare for the construction of “The Home of The Wise Ones,” a complex that would allow up to nine elders to remain in the community instead of being forced to move in order to seek care as they age.

Blake and her daughter, Kimberly, say that the house was moved without Victoria’s permission.

“I told them not to move it too and they did,” Victoria said. “They just wanted that land.”

Kimberly, in a separate interview, told the News that her mother believes she owns the house as she was told, when it was first built, that it was being given to her.

“I remember growing up and hearing that too, that this was our house, this was our home, they gave this home to us and she always said that, and … everybody in Old Crow says that, ‘That house is your mum’s,’” she said.

Victoria doesn’t have a title or physical documentation of ownership, but according to Kimberly, was given the house via a verbal agreement which she described as adhering to traditional law.

Kimberly, who has been speaking with Vuntut Gwitchin officials on behalf of her mother, said that Victoria was offered a spot in the new complex, but doesn’t want it — she wants her house moved back to its original spot, or, at the least, fixed and re-linked to the water system.

“We wanted to go up there this summer but we can’t do it now, she’s got no house,” Kimberly said. “Now she feels like she’s just pushed out of the community.”

In an interview July 16, Chief Dana Tizya-Tramm said that the First Nation has been unable to find any evidence of the traditional law being relied on by the Blakes, but does have documentation that shows the house was built with Vuntut Gwitchin money and actually belongs to the First Nation.

He described the house itself as being in “extremely bad shape,” and, since it’s Vuntut Gwitchin property, allowing anyone to live in it would be a “liability and insurance issue and at this point.”

“We’ve had two different professionals assess the house and their professional opinion is that it is financially more responsible to dismantle the house than it is to rebuild the house,” he said.

However, Tizya-Tramm said that the First Nation will not be taking further action on the house until it’s had the chance to speak directly to, and in-depth with, Victoria about different options, something he said has proved difficult. The Vuntut Gwitchin government, he said, is “open to private ownership” and is offering 99-year lot leases, an avenue that another community member recently pursued after their family home burned down.

He added that while the government respects the sentimental value of the house to the family, the elders’ complex is a crucial project, and one that’s seen planning, bylaw changes and community consultation on since 2006.

“This area was rezoned specifically for this Home of The Wise Ones, so really, we are open to a discussion towards home ownership if that’s what they so chose, whether they would prefer to have a unit in this brand-new facility … but at this point in time the government is not left with many options as we can’t hold up this much-needed infrastructure for a single unit in derelict shape,” he said.

Victoria and Kimberly disputed that the house was in bad shape; Kimberly said a friend had lived in it as recently as a year ago.

She also said that her mother is “so hurt and upset” that she doesn’t want to speak to anyone from the government, and that it’s refused to acknowledge her as her mother’s spokesperson.

“She wanted me to fight for this house, she wanted me to stop them, she wanted me to tell them, ‘No…’ And that’s what I told them,” she said.

“They took my mom’s roots away from her just by taking that house … An elder feels they have ownership of something and then it’s just ripped away from her. I just think it’s a sad, sad situation that they have to put her through this, to make her feel alienated by her own community.”

“I just wish they come to a favourable end to this instead of tearing my mom’s place down.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation