Residential school reparations, land claims agreements and clean water for First Nations were making national news headlines last week while the federal minister of Indian and Northern Affairs was in Whitehorse to announce funding for the 2007 Canada Winter Games.
Jim Prentice announced a $3-million pledge to market the Games on Friday with Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie and Games host society president Piers McDonald by his side.
“The campaign will increase interest, I believe, in tourism and economic development here in the Yukon and the other northern territories,” said Prentice.
“It should position the North, really, as the preferred place of employment in the days ahead for skilled workers.”
As Prentice spoke, a land dispute between Six Nations members and Ontario Provincial Police continued to smoulder near Caledonia, Ontario.
“I watched the situation closely, and hope it can be resolved peacefully and that no one gets hurt,” Prentice said when questioned about the dispute.
“We sent a fact-finder in about a month ago, and there have been discussions involving all of the parties.”
Prentice was a key figure behind Ottawa’s recent decision to delay advance compensation payments to First Nations elders who attended residential schools.
The former Liberal government initiated payments in advance of an overall final agreement, before losing power to the Conservatives in January.
A final agreement must be approved by court before payments can continue, explained Prentice.
“I expect to have the final agreement in my hands within the next several days, and I anticipate … it will take another week or so to secure the agreement of all of the parties.”
Ottawa isn’t “dragging its feet.”
“We have experienced problems with one of the parties at the table.
“I’m not at liberty to go beyond that, as the discussions are confidential.
“But we are pushing.”
Northern natural gas pipelines are also Prentice’s purview.
“We’re dealing with two major pipeline projects,” he said.
“I’ve spoken about the Mackenzie Valley project over the course of the last several days while I was in the NWT.
“Of course there’s the Alaska project as well. We’ve recently heard from the proponents, with their thoughts on that, and we’ll continue to meet with stakeholders and First Nations representatives.”
Prentice did not endorse any pipeline proponent.
An attorney by trade with more than a decade of land claims experience, Prentice was wetting his feet on his first tour as a minister.
Three land claim settlements that are yet outstanding in the Yukon require a new mandate for negotiation from the federal government, said Prentice.
“There is a small number of claims north of 60 that have not yet been resolved,” he said.
“It’s not always possible to reach agreement, and we are all responsible for the consequences of not reaching an agreement.
“People need to make choices. But any approach that I am part of will be positive and focused on a way forward.”
Prentice wouldn’t confirm that a $5.1-billion package negotiated under the Liberals in Kelowna last October will be paid out.
But he did commit to the “targets and objectives” of the Kelowna accord.
“As a new minister I moved very quickly, within the first 45 days, to deal with one of the most pressing issues, and that was the difficult circumstances of water amongst First Nations.
“The previous government, in 13 years, had not been able to publish water standards or to create a national water program for First Nations.”
Prentice met with Yukon First Nations leaders after the Games funding announcement.
Kwanlin Dun First Nation chief Mike Smith was not encouraged by Prentice’s “meet and greet.”
“I can’t say I was truly happy to meet the new minister,” Smith said Saturday.
“I know that the big problem we have right now, with Kwanlin Dun and other First Nations, is what kind of relationship are we going to have with the governments of the Yukon?”
The prospect of an Alaska Highway pipeline is a “huge, huge issue,” said Smith.
“We want to see this issue discussed in communities. We want this issue to get the full co-operation of everybody and it needs to be done at the community level.”