When I left the Yukon, it was a very sudden departure.
I had worked for two and a half years as a reporter for the Yukon News, cutting my professional teeth in one of the wildest, most fascinating places on earth, where good stories were never hard to find.
And then, within one week, I heard about a job in Ghana and was on a plane watching Whitehorse fade away in the snow- and pine-covered slopes beneath, hoping the bearded man to my right wouldn’t catch me crying.
So what a surprise it was recently to sit down as a reporter covering a Senate committee hearing in Ottawa and put on my earpiece and hear the voice that once haunted my reporter’s desk come booming back. Dennis Fentie.
Like a flash I was transported back to every obligatory address the premier made at the opening of this or that conference, waiting for him to stop with his talking points so I could corner him on his way out and have him comment on some smouldering scandal.
Fentie came to Ottawa to promote the Yukon Socioeconomic and Environmental Assessment Board amidst the debate over the Conservative government’s massive omnibus budget bill.
And so as he made his presentation to senators, he uttered those words that had littered my work in the Yukon on an almost daily basis.
“Land claim agreements,”“duty to consult,”“devolution of resources, “category A and B land,”“YESAB.”
It all brought me back.
There’s a way of life in those utterances. A way of life only Yukoners know about, and more importantly, know how to behave in.
A friend of mine was recently accepted into law school. One of the biggest credentials she had in her back pocket was having lived in the North – to have pondered its miseries, celebrated its joys and imagined its future.
As an energy and mining reporter in Ottawa, not a day goes by where my once-seemingly esoteric knowledge of environmental assessments, aboriginal consultation and mineral tax incentives doesn’t come into play.
Just read the debate Canadians are having right now, nationally, about the omnibus budget bill. Everybody is catching up on what Yukoners know like the back of their hands.
And it’s not just Canadians who are catching up. The quest for energy and commodities in a world aspiring for prosperity is playing out in the jungles of the Amazon, the Arctic seas and the islands of Indonesia.
In the way are the inhabitants of these places – indigenous people who identify with their lands in a more important way than any corporation.
And then there are the lands themselves – bounties of biodiversity that humans have to humbly accept we neither created nor understand.
What will happen to those people and places? The world is trying to answer that question, and the Yukon already has some answers.
I first arrived in the Yukon in the fall of 2008. There are two things I remember distinctly.
One was the air I breathed as I walked out the doors of the Whitehorse airport. With a sudden rush, my body responded to what it’s like to live in true, unfettered nature.
The second was how stupid I felt. Like any well-meaning Canadian, I thought I had every answer on the issues First Nations face locked and loaded. Boy, was I wrong.
Until you live there, you don’t know jack. Even now, I think the only thing I can say with certainty is knowing what I don’t know. I am more aware of where the gaps in my assumptions will appear, and approach them with more open ears than stern opinions.
As the senators peppered Fentie with questions, I had my reporter’s instinct on high alert, waiting for some blatant exaggeration to pass through his lips. But none did.
Of course, he spun Yukon’s current state and his legacy in a positive light, but he didn’t lie about it. I thought he made a decent statesman for the place, to be honest.
There were a few times when his gruff style came shining through. He would interrupt a senator to make an extra point and there it was, the Yukon politician revealed.
God, just like old times.
Afterwards, Senator Dan Lang came from around the table and we all shook hands. Fentie told me he had retired to Watson Lake. I asked him if I he had a card or anything for me so I could contact him with any follow-up questions, but he didn’t. So I proposed giving him my card and he could flip me an email to make contact.
“I probably won’t do that,” he said, showing a blunt honesty you don’t find much in Ottawa. “But you can look me up in the Watson Lake phone book.”
The old codger hasn’t changed a bit.
With that, I left Fentie and Lang to chat to themselves.
It was a strange reunion of sorts, but I take whatever I can get as a Yukoner in exile.