There’s a new type of missionary in the Yukon, says Ron Chambers.
The cultural guide and tour operator spent seven years of his childhood in residential or “mission” school.
“I know all about missionaries,” he said during an interview following a presentation he made to a Whitehorse conference on First Nations and resource development this week.
“And there are people here whispering in our ear, calling us environmental sinners if we don’t do what they want.
“People say, ‘Oh, you’re the original wilderness people.’ Well, I’m as cultural as they come, but I don’t need anyone telling me who I am or who I should be.
“They’re just different missionaries.”
The “we” he refers to are Yukon First Nation people. The new “missionaries” are environmentalists.
It quickly became clear that he was talking about the Peel River watershed debate. Affected First Nations and environmentalists have called for 100 per cent protection of the pristine area. The mining industry and government have shot down plans for 80 per cent protection, claiming even that is too much.
Chambers, a member of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, doesn’t want “to get in another person’s backyard,” he said.
But First Nations should make sure they can afford 100 per cent protection of such a huge swath of their traditional territory before calling for it, he said.
“We don’t have to give anything up culturally to be involved in business,” he said. “Economics helps pay the bills.”
Chambers isn’t against conservation or tourism, but said he’s realistic about the meagre revenue, for fewer people, that’s produced compared to mining, he said.
“I was a park warden for 22 years,” he said. “No one could be more concerned about the environment than I am. But on the other hand, we still have people that have to be involved and make a living.”
Chambers cites an example from his own backyard.
Windy Craggy had the potential to become a huge copper-cobalt-gold mine before the Tatshenshini-Alsek Provincial Park surrounded the ore deposits, making it impossible to develop a mine. The company received nearly $30 million and help to build another mine elsewhere.
But the park only employs a few park wardens, as opposed to the hundreds that could have been hired directly in construction and operation of the mine, said Chambers.
“I didn’t want to see a Windy Craggy either, but on the other hand, I see our people can’t afford to build their own houses.”
But the First Nations never really heard from the Windy Craggy mining company, he said. They did hear from B.C.‘s provincial government about plans to establish a park, however.
“For me, the biggest thing is that my people – First Nations people – get involved,” said Chambers. “If you don’t like what’s going on out there, well, that’s part of the involvement.”
There is the possibility that they won’t even find any resources in the Peel, Chambers added. But the point is that the people who live there should have the opportunity to go look if they want.
“Just because someone comes along and says, ‘Oh, we like your backyard, we want to take it over for our use,’ is not good enough,” he said. “For somebody to come up and do a canoe trip and then go back to wherever they came from, telling us we should leave the river for them, I don’t buy that.”
Chambers is confident that Outside mining companies can do more than tourism companies to share with First Nations.
“They have to make the deals,” he said.
Chambers was one of two speakers on a tourism panel at the conference.
He began his presentation by entering in the back of the conference room at Whitehorse’s High Country Inn.
Clad in full regalia – a hand-tanned moosehide jacket, mukluks, a wolf-fur headdress and caribou-hoof rattles, ptarmigan and grouse feathers and a sheep-horn potlatch spoon dangling from his neck, Chambers beat a traditional hand drum, sang and danced into the room.
At the podium, he held a talking stick while he spoke. He described his attire and talked about why culture is such an important part of what his Haines Junction-based company, Kruda Che Tours, has to offer.
Before leaving in the same fashion he came in, Chambers shared two passages from two different Alaskan newspaper stories from the late 1800s.
One criticized the “lazy Indians” for not having the willpower to take advantage of the riches buried below their feet. The other reported on the murder of his great-grandfather. He was the chief of the area that included the Chilkoot Pass, and he began charging a toll to the gold stampeders to use the pass as well as for the First Nation men hired to pack for them.
The Sitka chief came over to begin doing the same. It ended in a duel. Chambers’ great-grandfather was killed and then the Sitka chief was killed in response.
The article praised the chiefs’ deaths because it ended the tolls.
“It’s 100 years later and we’re talking about the same things,” he told the conference.
But whether it is mining or tourism, First Nations should be involved in what happens in their backyard.
He repeated that again and again when interviewed after the presentation.
“We are the biggest losers if we don’t do it right because we’re still going to be here,” he said.
And while mining may seem more obviously destructive, tourism is capable of its own consequences if it’s not done right, he said.
The Yukon Queen II boat, which has run on the Yukon River between Dawson City and Eagle, Alaska, is a case in point, he said.
The boat seems to be too big for the river. The Tr’ondek Hwech’in say the boat causes severe erosion to the banks and sucks up and slaughters large numbers of fry salmon.
The First Nation should have been involved in that planning, said Chambers. They could have voiced their concerns and pushed to change the size of the boat.
At the very least, if they’d been consulted from the start they’d have nobody to blame but themselves if problems occurred, he said.
Some people think the territory would be better off if there were no resources to be dug up or mountains to be hiked, said Chambers. But he doesn’t agree.
“What would we do?” he asked. “Stand around kicking stones? And then we’d never get rid of Indian Affairs. We have to have some type of revenue. For us to be independent First Nations, we have to develop.”
He said he doesn’t really take a side in the “battle” between tourism and the mining industry.
“I’m not either/or, for either side, if they don’t consult with the people that live there,” he said. “But we don’t have any opportunity if we just turn our country into a park.”
Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn