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Town strives for optimism

Four Watson Lake residents stand on the curb in front of the derelict trailer at 114 Teslin Crescent. Three of them are wearing gumboots with their pants tucked in. They're trying to avoid the puddles of runoff from the property, where piles of human and dog feces surround the trailer.


Four Watson Lake residents stand on the curb in front of the derelict trailer at 114 Teslin Crescent.

Three of them are wearing gumboots with their pants tucked in. They’re trying to avoid the puddles of runoff from the property, where piles of human and dog feces surround the trailer.

“This is our home,” says Sherry Botterill, one of the trailer’s neighbours. “Everyone pays taxes on this street, and to look at this, to smell this?”

Inside the stench is palpable. A vile rot emanates from every room, especially the back one, where town officials removed four cages of rats last month after the trailer was abandoned by drug-addicted, partying squatters.

But the town did little follow up. It left the unsightly abandoned trailer as it was, surrounded by dilapidated vehicles and garbage.

And that has the trailer’s neighbours, like Kaska Chief Hammond Dick, wondering whether the political brass in town care about its citizens.

“There were people screaming, yelling all night,” says Dick, who saw youth as young as 12 entering and leaving the trailer throughout the fall and early winter.

The town’s MLA, Premier Dennis Fentie, sarcastically asked Botterill if she wanted him to bring a loader down from Whitehorse to clean up the mess.

“Whatever it takes, Dennis,” she says she told him. But to no avail.

Two weeks ago, Botterill contacted the News and told her story about the health hazard that Watson Lake’s officials ignored. The day after, police tape was strewn around the yard, two of the cars were removed and some lime was poured over some of the larger piles of human feces.

And then came the threats.

People have accused Botterill of being a “troublemaker” and “bad-mouthing Watson Lake,” she said.

When asked who is threatening her, she says it’s the town’s “higher-ups.”

And that makes the rat house more than just a health hazard. It’s symptomatic of a larger trend in Watson Lake. Many citizens feel the town’s tightknit group of rich and powerful leaders have little interest in making the community healthy.

Whether it’s the high rate of substance abuse and violence, or crack dens luring young teenagers into a potential addiction, a decades-long indifference seems to exist here.

Take Don Taylor. The former MLA got in legal trouble earlier this year when he made unsubstantiated claims that Pat Irvin, owner of the local grocery store, was holding parties where illicit drugs were being used.

Taylor was hit with a defamation lawsuit by Irvin, who is a business associate of Community Services Minister Archie Lang and a political supporter of Fentie’s.

The suit was quietly settled out of court. Since then, Taylor has been banned from Watson Lake Foods.

Now, the 81-year-old has to drive five hours to Whitehorse to buy groceries. He brings a cooler with him to carry perishables.

“He told me I wasn’t welcome there anymore,” says Taylor.

“I told him he provided an essential service and he told me he didn’t think so.”

Last September, Taylor was also banned from Dr. Said Secerbegovic’s medical clinic after issuing a statement about drug prices in the town.

“You are no longer to visit the clinic except for emergency situations,” says a letter from Secerbegovic, dated September 15.

He isn’t welcome at Hougen’s either. It is the town’s only clothing store.

Taylor has been effectively shut out of essential services in Watson Lake: food, medical services and clothing. And that kind of intimidation keeps Watson Lakers’ mouths shut.

“It’s those people who are the movers and shakers who do control a lot of what’s going on,” says one woman who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

People can’t complain about the town’s conditions because power is concentrated in so few.

“If you have to buy groceries at the store, how do you complain against the government?” she said.

“It’s bullying in its worst sense.”

The town’s problems are compounded by the history of the local residential school, which was attended by a generation of Kaska people.

“It’s the powers that be against the very lowest of the low—the people who are down and out,” she said.

“How do you pull yourself together when you feel so hopeless?”

Hammond agrees there’s a lack of leadership in the town he calls home.

“I didn’t know this place harboured rats, and we live next door,” he said.

The night before, Hammond spoke at the release of the region’s Substance Abuse Strategy, a three-year project led by the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society. The evening had a take-back-our-town feel to it, with emotional speeches from people who are making the best of the town’s problems.

Fentie did not attend the announcement.

“It’s too bad our MLA isn’t here,” Hammond told a roomful of people at the town’s rec centre. “If our MLA was here, I think we’d have more commitment on this.”

He wants the Yukon government to push for the reinstatement of the Aboriginal Healing Fund, which funded the women’s society.

Justice Minister Marian Horne, who attended the announcement with four justice officials from Whitehorse, quickly grabbed the microphone from Hammond even though she had already spoken during a panel discussion on the strategy.

She has directed her officials to work with the RCMP to “work with Yukoners.” She’s asked the Women’s Directorate to write a letter to Ottawa to reinstate the funding for the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society. She also passed a motion in the legislature.

Hammond had another turn on the mike and asked for more government help. Then Horne once again tried to get the last word.

“I could have the mike all night for what we are doing in Justice,” she said. “I hope we are making changes and we will. We’ll prove that. Have faith in us.”

It was a rare moment of political one-upmanship during a moving evening highlighting Watson Lake’s potential.

But it also showed the struggle by some town residents’ to blow the lid off government indifference, and, in turn, the government’s intent to stifle dissent.

Back at the rat house, things are starting to move. After apologizing to Botterill, the town’s bylaw officer Dan Miller has ordered the trailer’s owner to remove her stuff.

This week, a truck was spotted removing two inches of soil from the property.

“Why is it bad to have concerns?” she says, standing amongst the puddles.

“This is not normal.”

Contact James Munson at