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Yukon Forum returns, money and Peel top talks

For the first time in three years, the Yukon and First Nation governments are meeting today in Whitehorse at what they call the Yukon Forum.

For the first time in three years, the Yukon and First Nation governments are meeting today in Whitehorse at what they call the Yukon Forum.

When the forum was established in 2005, by former premier Dennis Fentie and former Council of Yukon First Nations chief Andy Carvill, it was supposed to be held annually. There was one in 2006, 2007 and 2009 but there have been none since.

Talks about implementing self-government and final agreements dominated the first few meetings.

Not much has changed since 2005.

For example, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun are expected to bring up the Peel River watershed land use plan and its finalization. Land use planning is part of the Umbrella Final Agreement that was signed nearly 20 years ago.

Funding is another big issue topping the list.

Ottawa is toying with the idea of using an equation-based funding formula for all First Nations.

Similar to the Indian Act formula, which bases transfers on the number of First Nation citizens who hold a status card, Ottawa’s new “fiscal harmonization policy” would base funding on a mathematical equation.

But Yukon First Nation leaders say that would go against their agreements, which are entrenched in the Constitution.

“This policy is supposed to blanket all Canadian First Nations,” said Teslin Tlingit Council Chief Peter Johnston. “It will have detrimental effects on how we grow. We have our own mechanisms up here so we can have some jurisdiction.”

The ultimate goal of self-governance is to become completely self-reliant, which includes financial independence, said Johnston.

But the more Yukon First Nations try to develop own-source revenues, the more barriers or policies Ottawa keeps throwing in front of them, he said.

“We want to get our lip off the tit and be truly self-governing, but the more we put in the piggy bank, the bigger the hole in the bottom gets.

“It seems like someone in Ottawa woke up one day and thought, ‘What did we get ourselves into?’ and now they just keep backtracking. That’s what it seems like, at least.”

The Yukon agreements were set up to allow more and more “clawbacks” over time, Johnston said.

As First Nation governments matured it was intended that they would start making money, start taxing their citizens, develop businesses and take over more services and programming.

But in reality, most Yukon First Nation governments are still just trying to keep their heads above water.

Maintaining well-trained staff is hard because they can’t compete with the salaries offered by larger companies and governments who need to fill their First Nation quotas.

Often, there’s simply not enough staff to go around, said Johnston.

Even though the self-government agreements explicitly say transfer payments must be negotiated, the number of First Nation citizens who hold a status card still has a lot of sway with Ottawa and the amount of money it provides.

But in the Yukon, citizenship numbers continue to rise as the number of status cardholders continues to dwindle.

Essentially, First Nations receive money for programming for status Indians, but they have to support both status and non-status citizens.

“That whole thing is completely ludicrous,” said Johnston. “All these offsets are the only way they’re keeping their thumbs on our foreheads.”

Johnston’s Teslin Tlingit Council was one of the first four Yukon First Nations to sign its agreements in 1993. The council’s agreement took effect in 1995.

In the past 17 years, the Teslin-based government has had many successes. It has 18 companies under its wings and is the first First Nation in Canada to assume responsibility for justice.

But that doesn’t mean it gets easier, said Johnston.

Yukon First Nation governments have to build cash “caches,” like trusts, that must be “sheltered and kept safe” for things like student scholarships and business mortgages, said Johnston.

With new federal policies in the works, like the “fiscal harmonization policy,” any stability that has been established is being threatened, said Johnston.

His First Nation’s financial transfer agreement from Ottawa this year is the biggest one to date, thanks to the initial lump-sum included for its new justice agreement.

“We have finally achieved some financial certainty with the FTAs,” he said.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at