Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston says the first Yukon Forum held between First Nation leaders and the new Liberal government was “one of the best days” of his career.
“Things are changing dramatically, I feel, in the context of governance in the Yukon,” he said at a press conference after the forum wrapped up on Jan. 13.
Yukon Premier Sandy Silver echoed Johnston’s sentiment.
“Today was a powerful day,” he said. “It was one of the most powerful days I’ve witnessed.”
There were no major announcements out of Friday’s forum, which was scheduled to last from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. but ended up running two hours longer than planned.
The leaders did sign an intergovernmental declaration committing the members of the forum to meet up to four times annually and to create a five-year action plan “that identifies common priorities” before the next Yukon Forum in April.
But it seems the private meeting was largely a chance for First Nation leaders to air their grievances and work to mend what had become a fractured relationship with the former Yukon Party government. The Yukon Party held the forum just three times after its election in 2011.
The chiefs of all 11 of Yukon’s self-governing First Nations were present, as was the deputy chief of the White River First Nation. The two Kaska chiefs, Jack Caesar of the Ross River Dena Council and Daniel Morris of the Liard First Nation, did not attend.
“We respect their position — if they want to attend, it’s up to them,” Johnston said. “We have to prove … this forum is an effective place where they can come and deal with their issues, too.”
Johnston said all the leaders spoke during the day, which is why the meeting went on longer than expected. He said the First Nations were able to set the agenda for the day, which hasn’t always been the case in the past.
“We wanted it done on our terms, our way — culture, opening prayer done in our language, traditional dances,” he said, adding that he offered a potlatch bowl that will be a ceremonial piece reflected in every forum.
Youth from several First Nations were also present at the event, which Kwanlin Dun Chief Doris Bill said was a first.
“It’s great that they can witness this because that’s what those (self-government) agreements are all about. It’s about our youth.”
Three more Yukon Forums will be held this year, in April, September and December.
Johnston said there are four major issues that must be addressed: the implementation of the final agreements, fiscal arrangements with the federal and territorial governments, setting a legislative agenda for the Yukon and First Nation governments, and building a tripartite relationship between Ottawa, the Yukon and First Nations.
Full implementation of the final agreements, he said, means giving the self-governing First Nations the resources to administer programs they way they see fit.
“Are we able to provide services and programs to our people based on the way Kwanlin Dun or Selkirk First Nation or Vuntut Gwitchin would like to do for their own people?” he said.
But, as Silver put it, this first forum wasn’t about tackling those hard issues.
“It’s about having those opportunities to build the friendships, the rapports, getting used to each other, just being beside each other and knowing each other that way,” he said.
According to the declaration, discussions at future Yukon Forums will largely be confidential. Johnston said it’s important to create a “safe environment” for people to bring forward their concerns.
“We have to respect that there’s a lot of crises in the communities when it comes to drug and alcohol abuse, the lack of programming and services for our people,” he said. “It’s not to hide anything, but more importantly to be able to have that ability for our people to find success.”
Bill said Friday’s Yukon Forum was a “good first step,” and that people are excited about building a better relationship between the Yukon government and First Nations.
She said even little things — First Nation flags flying in downtown Whitehorse, or local bus shelters decorated with First Nation artwork — are signs of reconciliation.
“I may not have put a label on it, and I don’t necessarily worry about defining reconciliation. But I know when I’ve achieved it, because I feel it here,” she said, putting a hand on her heart.
Contact Maura Forrest at email@example.com