First Nations struggle to breathe life into council

Joe Jack was threatened with a loaded firearm on the Alaska Highway two years ago when he tried to take his son hunting on the Koidern River near Beaver Creek. Jack, one of two candidates for grand chief at the Council of Yukon First Nations annual general assembly this week...

Brooks Brook

Joe Jack was threatened with a loaded firearm on the Alaska Highway two years ago when he tried to take his son hunting on the Koidern River near Beaver Creek.

Jack, one of two candidates for grand chief at the Council of Yukon First Nations annual general assembly this week, and his seven-year-old son were trying to spook a bull moose out of the water in August 2008 with two other hunters when they were attacked.

A man with a nearby cabin began firing shots after the hunting party tried to scare the moose. And the man was walking along the highway where the party’s cars were parked.

Jack and his son went to investigate in his truck. As he pulled up, the man pointed his rifle at Jack.

“He said, ‘If you make a move I’ll blow your head off,’” said Jack.

“I kind of froze and told my little one, ‘Duck down, this guy’s crazy.’”

Jack pulled away while the man continued to make threats. They reported the incident to the Beaver Creek RCMP.

“There were charges laid and the RCMP has a file that thick,” he said, holding his fingers apart by two inches.

Jack visited the detachment last summer and asked what had happened. Despite the work of the RCMP, the Crown had refused to prosecute.

“He pulled a gun on me and my little boy and they didn’t do anything?” said Jack.

“I guess there must be two sets of laws here, one for other Yukoners and one for people like me,” he said.

A First Nation police force is the only solution, said Jack. He’s doubtful a policing review taken place in the wake of Raymond Silverfox’s death in RCMP custody will change much.

“What is it going to take to make it change – to make it better for First Nations?” he said.

“(Policing) was probably what got the biggest reaction in the communities, because they have their own stories with regards to the RCMP.”

The idea of a First Nation police force was one of the few specific ideas mentioned in the runup to the grand chief election Tuesday. This despite a leadership crisis at the council, which has failed to reinvent itself while First Nations trudge through the implementation of their land claims.

Jack and interim Grand Chief Ruth Massie are the only two candidates in the election. On Wednesday morning delegates voted overwhelmingly for Massie. She won 38 votes to Jack’s 13.

In a prolonged question-and-answer period with delegates the day before, the candidates faced a barrage of diverging viewpoints, most notable on the question of the council’s unity.

“We’ve weakened over the years as every First Nation leaves CYFN,” said Joseph O’Brien, a delegate with the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.

“It bothers me, the First Nations that have left. I would like one day to have vision that we be back together so we’ll be able to conquer anything that comes our way,” he said.

The Kaska First Nations in Ross River and Watson Lake left the council more than a decade ago and the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation left in 2008. Kwanlin Dun First Nation hasn’t been a member for years either. The council was originally created to lobby the territorial and federal governments for land claims agreements. But since many First Nations have signed agreements, there’s been disagreement over what the council’s new role should be.

“I wonder what the candidates’ approach on bringing us back together would be,” said O’Brien.

Massie used her recent experience as interim grand chief to describe the complexities of bringing back old members.

“(The Kaskas) do want to come to this table, but they see a lot of issues with First Nations at the table,” she said.

Kwanlin Dun is also hesitant to rejoin. They face their own unique slew of problems since all First Nations have residents in Whitehorse, where the Kwanlin Dun territory resides.

“Their priorities would get watered down in the presence of everyone else at the table,” said Massie.

While there was a lot of talk about what keeps the council apart, there was little mention of what could bring it together. The council faced a restructuring process last year that watered down the power of then-grand chief Andy Carvill, who is supposed to take orders from members.

In March, Carvill resigned. His departure further nudged the council into disarray and a failure of leadership was consistently mentioned during the election.

The First Nations face a fork in the road. They can either invest more powers into the council, or they can continue to strengthen their powers individually.

“We still are sovereign independent First Nations,” said Dwayne Aucoin, a delegate with the Teslin Tlingit First Nations.

“And when I hear unity, it makes me wonder, what are we going to be asked to give up to attain this unity?” he said.

“We’ve struggled for long to get recognized what we have as sovereign independent First Nations that it makes me hesitant.

“Do we want to surrender our authority to another level of government?”

But it wasn’t clear from either candidate what might best be done by the council. Jack proposed working on specific projects collectively rather than large policy fields.

The council’s constitution needs to be reformed so that less overlap occurs between First Nations and the council, he said.

One of the biggest hurdles facing First Nations is social services. Child services, elder care and addictions treatment all arose as major issues for delegates during the question period.

Some First Nations want to take care of their own people individually, but it’s an expensive undertaking that is taking years to accomplish.

The confusion on program implementation – and the money that comes with it – has led to a turf war between different levels of government.

Child services are being negotiated as part of a package in First Nations’ financial transfer agreements with Canada, said Massie.

But the Yukon government lobbies Ottawa for money for similar programs supposedly on behalf of First Nations, she said.

“We have an issue with the off-loading of programs from Canada to Yukon through the devolution transfer agreement,” she said.

Massie spoke to the Yukon cabinet about the issue recently, she said.

“I think we need to approach Canada once and for all,” she said.

“And let them know even we are self-governing First Nations and they can transfer their funds directly to us.”

Contact James Munson at

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