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Yukon’s small communities request communication ‘overhaul’

System for recognizing rural Yukon’s concerns and suggestions needs an overhaul
Keno City’s waste transfer station slated to be closed by the Yukon government. (Lawrie Crawford/Yukon News)

The Yukon’s Ombudsman has responded to two complaints from residents of three Yukon communities who say they aren’t being heard by the Yukon government at the decision-making table.

Amber Smith of Keno City and Suzanne Tremblay of Destruction Bay say that communication between the Yukon government and unincorporated communities is broken.

“The whole system needs an overhaul,” said Smith.

The two complaints were filed by residents of Keno City, Silver City and Destruction Bay.

Yukon, with its complex governance reality with the Yukon Bureau of Statistics estimating 43,000 people clustered into overlapping governmental jurisdictions – federal, territorial, 11 self-governing First Nations, eight municipalities, three non-self-governing First Nations, five local area councils, and 15+ unincorporated communities (which include some First Nation communities and local area councils) – seems incomprehensible to those in more populous Canadian jurisdictions.

Ken Coates, historian and Canada Research Chair in Regional Innovation at the University of Saskatchewan, calls Yukon’s governance structure “jurisdictional chaos.”

Chris Alcantara, from Western University, says it’s complicated, complex and challenging.

Floods, fire protection and resource development are all testing the bounds of small Yukon communities’ ability to communicate, coordinate and collaborate with the Yukon government.

Both Tremblay and Smith have spent hours, totalling days and weeks, communicating with the Yukon government on things like waste management and rural fire protection. Ross River resident Dorothy Smith says that Ross River also feels left out and alone on community issues.

Other Yukon reports have also identified communication failure and a lack of administrative responsibility and responsiveness from the Yukon government. The COVID-19: Crisis Management Debrief from the Association of Yukon Communities (AYC) and the Options for Carcross Governance Report in 2020, both speak to a failure to communicate, collaborate and respond to rural community issues.

The AYC report acknowledged how “communication, engagement and collaboration with municipalities and First Nations are primary tenants of practice during crisis management,” but that the Government of Yukon appeared to make decisions in the absence of working together, without inclusion and engagement of the communities.

The inquiries by the Ombudsman’s office resulted in an observation that the process did not include representation from the communities that were ultimately affected by the decisions that were made. In a letter to Tremblay and Smith on March 4, the process was described as “an unfairness.” 

While the Ombudsman’s observations pertained to a specific complaint from residents of Keno City, Destruction Bay and Silver City regarding the process (not the decision) that led to the recommendation to close four solid waste facilities, it brings to the fore the challenges for residents in unincorporated communities to have voice and participate in decisions that affect them.

In a March 11 interview, Mostyn rejected the Ombudsman’s observation.

“I really reject the premise that people in these communities have not been heard because I have heard them. It doesn’t mean that we’re not listening to them — we don’t agree with their approach.”

Community advisors covering many levels of communication

Unincorporated communities do not have emergency plans in case of earthquakes, forest fires, or floods. Some have solid waste facilities closing, fire systems on hold, and people in Ross River wonder why garbage is arriving from Carmacks. Keno residents are on their own to decipher and assess a 20-year plan for mine remediation in their backyard.

They are not represented by the Association of Yukon Communities, an association of municipalities, contrary to Mostyn’s assertions to the News. Smith and Tremblay contemplate the creation of an “Association of Unincorporated Communities” as a possible option going forward as part of their search to find a voice for the small communities.

Tremblay and other residents of Destruction Bay, Silver City and Burwash only found out that they have a community advisor assigned to their area after the complaint-driven resolution process through the Yukon Ombudsman’s Office had been completed.

No one in any of those communities knew about their advisor in spite of the communities sending three petitions to the government with over 100 signatures, numerous phone calls and a community meeting with the minister in September.

A spokesperson told the News in an email that the mandate of community advisors is focused on supporting administrative and elected officials.

“While the team does offer support to residents who are looking for information and services, the central role of the advisors is to support local governments,” Aisha Montgomery, Community Services communications director, wrote in an email.

“In the case of communities without a local government, they provide what support they can to individuals.”

Montgomery directed community members wishing to connect with advisors to a list posted on the Yukon government’s website.

“Although not the main focus of the branch’s work, advisors do work to provide a connection point for Yukoners in unincorporated communities who may have concerns or questions about their local matters that relate to Yukon government,” Montgomery wrote.

Montgomery added that Community Affairs staff primarily work between municipalities, local advisory councils, First Nations and the Association of Yukon Communities in addition to unincorporated municipalities.

Seeking more substantial collaboration

Smith and Tremblay cannot understand the government’s emphasis on the number of permanent residents rather than appreciating and supporting the rich contribution small towns with museums, heritage sites and highway stops that actually make up the character and quality of life in the territory.

Their experience and their persistent “work arounds” should demonstrate to government the value of local contributions in coming to new and creative solutions. Local knowledge, shared understandings and conversations that explore options need to become a “way of doing” for Yukon government in rural Yukon, they said.

Smith and Tremblay’s points align with recommendations from reports on decision-making processes.

In last June’s Canada in a Changing Climate: National Issues report, the dangers of top-down, and often inflexible “senior government structures” were flagged as a real risk to emergency response in rural and remote parts of Canada.

The same message was reframed again in the recently released Climate Change 2022: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability by the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report.

The February 2022 ICCP report repeatedly stated that “greater inclusivity of stakeholders and communities … including Indigenous knowledge and local knowledge, can benefit robust planning and decision-making, and [the] uptake of adaptations” to mitigate climate change impacts.

Though both of the these are high level international and national reports, they provide a guiding framework about what is needed for the Yukon to prove resilient and nimble enough to address future challenges. The ICPP report was clear, saying with ‘very high confidence’ that “Colonialism can inhibit the development of robust climate adaptation strategies, and exacerbate climate risks.”

READ MORE: Yukon’s complexity requires a new approach for climate change and disaster response: expert

Correction: A technical error ran this story in print with several blocks of text missing. This story has also been updated to include clarifying details from the Yukon government. The News apologizes for any confusion this may have caused.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at