After taking a drubbing this past week over apparent plans to privatize Yukon’s public utility, Premier Dennis Fentie probably hoped that controversy would not dog him to Dawson City, where he is hosting the Western Premiers’ Conference.
No such luck.
“The premier’s always given us lip service to the general public. But he doesn’t walk the talk,” said Chief Ruth Massie of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council, speaking on the phone from Dawson on Thursday.
“We want to work together. The premier’s always stated he wants to work in the best interests of everyone, and so forth. But with individual First Nations, he’s always, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’ And you can’t work like that.”
She’s speaking on behalf of a coalition of four First Nations, which have most recently ratified land claim deals.
Unhappy with what they describe as a widening gulf between Fentie’s words and his actions, they held a press conference in Dawson on Thursday to express their discontent.
Offering support to the coalition was grand chief Andy Carvill of the Council of Yukon First Nations.
“We know when the premier at various meetings in Ottawa, talks about the great relationships he has with Yukon First Nations. We know he’s telling the premiers the same thing,” Carvill said of Fentie.
“He may have a good relationship with some First Nations. But some are still at odds. You just need to look at what’s going on with Little Salmon/Carmacks and the court case they’re engaged in.”
The First Nation and the Yukon government are in a protracted court battle over the territory’s decision to grant an agricultural lease without consulting the First Nation.
The recent passage of a law to create a child advocate’s office is another sore point, said Carvill.
“We weren’t included in that process when we were told we would be, that we would be engaged. We weren’t engaged at all,” he said.
“We were definitely consulted, but we were not accommodated, whatsoever, in the whole process,” said Massie.
Yukon’s First Nations with settled land claims are considered governments by law. Yet money they receive from Ottawa continues to be funnelled through the territory.
Fentie has agreed this is a problem, but he won’t apply pressure on Ottawa to change the arrangement, the coalition says.
The Education Department claims to be in near-perpetual consultation with First Nations. Yet First Nations are denied real control over the school system, said Massie.
When the Kluane First Nation proposed to put a school in Burwash Landing, the territorial government shot them down.
“We should be, as self-governing First Nations, looking after our own families and children,” said Massie.
A three-page press release heaped further scorn on Fentie’s leadership style.
“Fentie should understand better than most the importance of respect and co-operation,” said Kluane Chief Wilfred Sheldon in the release. “It was his predecessors that led the fight for the territories to be included with the provinces at premiers’ and first ministers’ meetings, rather than be left sitting outside in the hallway,” he said.
“Even today, while treated as an equal by provincial premiers, Fentie is still referred to under federal protocol as ‘leader’ rather than ‘premier,’ to note a lesser standing,” said Sheldon.
“We pay taxes; we are governments responsible for all people in our jurisdictions,” said Kwanlin Dun Chief Mike Smith. “It is time we were shown the same recognition, respect and co-operation that Premier Fentie and his predecessors have struggled for years to win, so that we can implement our agreements, secure adequate funding and provide the services our people deserve, including the protection of their language and culture,” said Smith.
Hammond Dick, tribal chief of the Kaska Nation, joined the melee. “Our fellow First Nations expect to be treated with respect,” he said in the release. “Until we see that happening, is it any wonder we continue to be in the courts regarding our rights, title and interests?”
The Yukon Forum, set up to allow regular meetings between First Nations and the territorial government, “has proven mostly ineffective and more symbolic than a body that actually generates actions,” states the release.
The coalition is calling on Fentie to create a group of senior government staff who would follow-through on the forum’s decisions with government action.
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