Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Ruth Massie sits just two blocks from the Salvation Army soup kitchen where Nora Jim is lecturing me.
Half a century ago, Jim and Massie briefly lived just a stone’s throw apart in downtown Whitehorse.
Now they’re worlds apart.
“Land claims turned out to be a big disappointment,” Jim tells me as we eat a plate of spaghetti at the soup kitchen.
“My biggest beef is that we still have a lot of homeless people. I’ll be living in my van any day now and my own parents are getting kicked out of their home in the old village. That will make four generations of the Jim family currently homeless – 17 of us!”
Jim is a tough, no-nonsense former journalist. When there’s an overflow or shortage of booze at the soup kitchen, I can count on Jim to cover my back in the melee.
“Sit down, shut up, mind your own business,” she’ll bark at anyone who calls me down. She comes here to visit those in need and, if someone is feeling particularly blue, she’ll take them for a drive in her van.
Jim herself has fallen on hard times. Her daughter died in 2001 and there are still days in a row when she can’t lift herself out of bed.
She says it was during the darkest hours of her grief that she was required to make a decision about accepting a home from Champagne/Aishihik First Nation.
The deal got messed up in the fog of grieving.
So, too, perhaps the land-claim and self-government agreements, according to Jim.
Eleven of the Yukon’s 14 First Nations signed between 1993 and 2005 – well before Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology for residential schools and before the multi-generational impacts were fully realized.
“We should have started with healthy people. We should have had healing first and then stable homes before we signed anything. Residential school and substance abuse issues were barely touched on. Now we are being pushed around by our own people. How come our sovereign nation isn’t fighting for homes for the homeless?”
Just two blocks farther up Black Street, Massie, the newly elected grand chief, sighs when I ask her if her old neighbour Jim is right.
Massie suggests we have a coffee, but here in the former furniture store turned CYFN headquarters the pot sits empty. She reaches up in the cupboard and makes it herself.
Massie spent her childhood at the corner of Third Avenue and Jarvis Street in a family of a dozen kids.
Her nonnative dad worked for White Pass and he often quizzed her on the multiplication table as she rode around with him in his truck.
As an adult she ran a beauty salon in Faro for a decade, got into economic development with Ta’an Kwach’an First Nation and was elected chief in 2001.
Her election was bitterly disputed in court for four years. During that struggle Ta’an signed their agreement in 2002. Massie survived it all and went on to get re-elected.
“My role model is Maggie Broeren, sister of former chief Jim Boss. She really ran the village. When my grandparents (Laberge Billy and Jenny Laberge) showed up, it was Maggie who told grandpa where he could go trap. She assigned everyone a job.
“There were big expectations that self-government would improve the social conditions of our people. But you’ve got to look at how Indian Affairs created a welfare mentality. I really think a lot of people lost the common sense to be responsible. The expectation is, you just go to your chief and they give everything to you just like Indian Affairs.”
As chief of Ta’an Kwach’an, Massie spent three years trying to create more housing. But modern-day bureaucracy entangles every simple, straightforward idea.
“Before you get into housing you need a housing policy. It has to go hand-in-hand with the (Yukon) Lands Act. Every time you write one sentence, it brings up 10 other issues.”
I ask if the land-claims and self-government agreements were, indeed, signed too hastily. There is a pause, then she nods.
“Now, in hindsight, I’d say yes.
“I think we actually should have listened to the Kaska. At that time, people were fed up with the process taking so long. The feds said it wouldn’t affect our aboriginal rights and titles and we believed them. Now we have no aboriginal rights and title on certain things outside our settlement land on our traditional land.
“(The Yukon government) is the agent of the Crown now and I did ask the federal minister if they’re the new Indian agent. (Premier Dennis) Fentie said I wasn’t allowed to ask that, but I did anyway. They give our land away to third-party interests all the time. That was our big issue with the LARC process that led into (the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act) and we’re still fighting for our say in that.”
I point to the Salvation Army down the street where I just left Nora Jim.
Would that place be so crowded today if healing had taken place before signing?
“Oh, absolutely healing should have come first. We could have had camps out on the land for whole families. That would have totally made a difference because in camp you’re always responsible for something or someone. Everyone has a duty when you are out on the land, everybody’s got a job.”
Jobs, healing – many of Massie’s former neighbours have neither.
Today again Jim tells me she still feels alone even with 10 siblings. She takes another friend for a ride in the van she bought with her Residential School Common Experience payout.
She travels down the Alaska Highway her father helped build, past the airport her father cleared.
“I feel sad that it’s come down to this.”
Roxanne Livingstone is a freelance writer who lives in Whitehorse