Three Kaska teens ambled along the Alaska Highway near Upper Liard last weekend, dangerously close to the solid centre line.
They seem bored and without any goal or destination. But a vehicle with Alaska plates roared at top speed around the corner in their direction.
Instantly, an RCMP car appeared with lights flashing and pulled the car over.
These teens were saved from disaster in the nick of time.
Death and destruction are all too common among the Kaska.
Already, the impact of outside forces has all but destroyed the parents and grandparents of these youth.
The building of the Alaska highway brought a tsunami of social change and their own Ground Zero, the Lower Post Residential School, still stands only 20 minutes from Watson Lake.
The town is still struggling with their aftereffects.
“Alcohol and drug addiction is epidemic” says Ann Maje Raider, “Ninety-four per cent of our children say they see the problem.”
Maje Raider was the first-ever elected chief of the Liard First Nation in the early ‘90s, having fought for free elections to displace the hereditary system. For the past decade she’s been the head of the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society.
For three years, it has been working with Watson Lake and all the Kaska from northern BC to Ross River on a substance-abuse action plan, thanks to $320,000 in funding from the Northern Strategy Trust Initiative.
The final draft Can You Hear the Drum Beat? Our Ten-Year Vision for Health and Healing was released at the town’s recreation centre on Friday.
“Substance abuse is severing our relationship to the land, culture and identity,” it reads. “It is impacting Kaska language, governance systems … family co-operation … problems associated with substance abuse, including family violence, violent crime, drug trafficking and medical health issues are endemic to all parts of our community.”
Maje Raider and others knew all that before the report came out, and tried for years to address the problem.
“At LAWS we tried healing camps on the land. But you can’t do a workshop when you have addiction issues,” she says. “I know it myself. I had to sober up before I was ready to do the real work of recovery.”
There are no treatment facilities in southeast Yukon, but the report suggests between 75 per cent to 95 per cent of Kaska citizens need some form of help. It talks about dysfunctional behaviours like bullying, blaming and lateral violence.
“We want healing,” says Maje Raider. “We don’t want to build bigger jails or bigger hospitals or new graveyards. The plan calls for a treatment facility to be built out on the land. We’d have two six-month cultural programs – one to learn our traditional winter skills, one for summer.
“There’s also a lot of baby steps we can do right now in the community.”
The Kaska, particularly women, have spoken passionately at public gatherings about their love for their children and the need to return to the values still practised by elders. There is untapped spiritual wealth and connection to the land.
But tonight the tone is different. Politicians, bureaucrats and a consultant are singing their own praises in front of a Powerpoint presentation complete with graphs, etc.
Just outside, kids run over a dirty snowbank and jump on the picnic table. Nearby, young moms light up and blow smoke in the air. This time it’s only cigarettes. But I’ve seen some smoke dope in the park with their toddlers playing at their feet.
“Statistics indicate only half of the children in Watson Lake feel safe,” a number-cruncher announces to the group inside the centre. “Adults bootleg for children. Eighty-nine per cent say they see violence associated with booze.
“On a per capita basis, the Watson Lake RCMP detachment is the busiest in the Yukon. They had 1,700 calls last year for a population of 900. They have nine officers here.”
While the police statistician drones on, a group of young boys appears outside the recreation centre. One has a metal road sign, obviously torn down from the highway. He’s using it to hit the other boys. They grab part of a post and swing it at his head. This violent horsing around goes unnoticed or ignored by adults.
“The biggest barriers to seeking treatment are fear, lack of trust and lack of social skills,” the wonk continues.
The healing plan will cost millions, and Ottawa is cutting funding to aboriginal organizations, says Kaska Tribal Chief Hammond Dick once he takes the podium.
He fears this plan could die and collect dust on a shelf just like the one they wrote in 1993. He’s willing to leverage what the Kaska still have – their land and resources.
“Good evening, everyone,” he says. “I want to address the mining industry and other developers … we need your help, we need your help badly. Without your help we won’t be able to do it.”
Kaska leadership has cleverly tied the release of the action plan with a trade show for industry. Anyone who wants to harvest minerals and resources in southeast Yukon is invited. It’s suggested monetary assistance to get the plan going would sweeten any deal and show commitment to the area.
Maje Raider and the other women of LAWS have given birth to this plan, this dream of healing, but now have to hand over their baby.
“I was officially laid off at the end of March. (The Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society) doesn’t have any more funding to continue. It’s up to the Kaska Tribal Council and the politicians to implement it now.”
Maje Raider has recently become a grandmother. That’s where she’ll be found – teaching real Kaska values to her grandchild. Maybe they’ll visit the kerchiefed elder I saw standing alone on the ice, too alone, fishing in the Liard River.
But here at the recreation centre, the picnic table has been taken over by teenage boys in sunglasses, baggy clothes and ball caps on backwards. I amble up and ask if they know what’s going on inside.
“Is it something for Uncle?” they ask, referring to another person who died this week of cancer.
I tell them it’s about a plan to deal with substance abuse in Kaska territory.
“Oh,” says one. “Well, I’ve got a plan myself. I’m going to get my Grade 12 and join the army. I’m going to leave this town and never come back.”
That night, the RCMP were kept hopping. Groups of intoxicated people roamed the town, the school was broken into and the historic Watson Lake Hotel burned to the ground.
The fire chief suspects arson.