Ruth Massie is feeling confident.
The returned chief of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council beat longtime rival Bonnie Harpe, winning a clear majority in last Monday’s election.
Massie took 124 votes to Harpe’s 97. Sixty-eight per cent of Ta’an’s eligible voters participated in the election.
Now, Massie is moving forward with a new mandate that includes plans for a long-awaited general assembly and spending authority for a $26-million “federal transfer agreement” that continues to flow from Ottawa.
“We haven’t had quorum at some board meetings because we still have three families who are refusing to attend,” said Massie on Friday during a tour of the Ta’an building in Whitehorse.
“We’ve just had one family re-appointed, so now we have qualified quorum.”
The 432 members of the Ta’an are composed of five “traditional families.”
The First Nation’s nine-member board of directors needs at least six delegates from those families to pass any resolutions.
The board has that quorum, and will meet this week.
“We will invite all of the family representatives to the table for our meetings,” said Massie, who was named chief after the Ta’an’s inaugural election in 2004, only to see the result overturned by a judicial council after numerous appeals from Harpe.
Massie was appointed acting chief by an elders’ council until a second election could be held.
The second election was delayed because of several court challenges from Harpe, who argued that the First Nation’s constitution was not being upheld.
Now that the new election results are in, partisan differences need to be set aside, said Massie.
But Harpe is considering filing an appeal of the election results within the 30-day window, citing irregularities during the vote count, such as scrutineers being locked out of counting rooms.
“There have been some complaints about the way in which the entire election was handled,” Harpe said last week.
Many Ta’an citizens did not bother voting because they have “given up on their own First Nation.
“I know that the pain and suffering that my people have had to endure in the name of self-government is not what my great-great-grandmother Susie Jim or her brother chief Jim Boss envisioned for their people,” said Harpe.
Delegates from the Susie Jim family have not committed to keep quorum at board meetings, but one of two delegates from the Jim Boss family has agreed, allowing the qualified quorum, said Massie.
The Ta’an have more important things to focus on than internal debates between families, she noted.
“The election is over. Period.”
Implementing the First Nation’s land claim agreement with Ottawa, signed in 2001, is at the top of Massie’s agenda.
Affordable housing for Ta’an citizens is a close second.
A $50-million pot from Ottawa for affordable housing projects in the Yukon, announced last spring, must be divided among First Nations and non-aboriginal Yukoners, said Massie.
Although the Ta’an board has a $3.5-million budget for operations and maintenance, it does not have a budget for capital projects.
Projects such as housing are funded through federal or territorial programs.
But the Ta’an does have almost $23 million in equity, according to the First Nation’s audited financial statements of March 31, 2006.
The Ta’an are not paying out any more loans, which means some debts to Ottawa for land claim negotiations are paid.
So far, the $26 million over 15 years that Ottawa continues to pay the Ta’an has been invested in several companies, including numbered corporate entities and the First Nation’s own development corporation.
But a five-year moratorium on spending the settlement cash will end during Massie’s mandate, in 2007.
“We have to take it back to our citizens,” said Massie.
The Ta’an need a general assembly, and it has tried three times since 2003 to hold one, but three families kept walking out and breaking quorum, she said.
On top of financial priorities, the First Nation has had several conflicts with the Yukon government that need to be discussed.
Although the government has agreed to reject an agricultural proposal in the Ta’an’s traditional territory near Shallow Bay, on Lake Laberge, and convert part of the land into a “special management area,” the fate of the rest of the 24-hectare parcel has yet to be determined, said Massie.
And the Ta’an, like many Yukon First Nations, opposed the government’s big game outfitter policy that was introduced last spring because it grants tenure to a select group of stakeholders who operate in First Nations traditional territory, she said.
At the earliest, a general assembly could be held in January, said Massie.
“There has been a lot of disunity and fragmentation within our First Nation since the last election in 2004, and it’s time to amend that.”