Council of Yukon First Nations election forum: Parties speak of reconciliation

Three Yukon party leaders spoke of partnership and reconciliation at a forum held Wednesday, but some in the audience were wary of these promises.

Forum poses questions about housing, languages, education, justice

Yukon Party leader Darrell Pasloski, Liberal leader Sandy Silver and NDP leader Liz Hanson on stage at the Council of Yukon First Nations forum Thursday night at Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. The CYFN first sought written responses from territorial parties. Those questions informed the public session on Oct. 20. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The night ended with people still queued at the Kwanlin Dün cultural centre's microphones.

Leaders of three territorial parties agreed to stay what would prove to be an extra half-hour as moderator Mary-Jane Jim read a few last written questions sent from Yukon communities, where citizens were watching live on Facebook or listening on radio.

There were plenty of questions.

People asked about preserving Indigenous languages. They asked how Yukon could improve housing, how it could reform education and justice. 

They asked about climate change, food security and the negotiation of land claims. They asked about renewable energy and infrastructure grants and plans for the economy.

Behind all these questions was the acknowledgement of a divide between Yukon First Nations and the non-Indigenous people. 

Jonathan Wurtak of Whitehorse, a member of the Teslin Tlingit First Nation, said he was disappointed by what he called vague language in some of the party leaders' answers. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Assembly of First Nations' regional Chief Mike Smith said this divide is based in historical trauma.

"I want to know how (a new government) is going to address colonialism, how it's going to address genocide. How it's going to address forced relocation. How it's going to address residential school," he said. 

"If you really want to move ahead, you have to deal with all these issues that we have endured and managed to survive."

Parties talk partnership

Three party leaders all expressed their commitment to better relations and better outcomes for First Nations. 

"Our relationship with First Nations people is about more than just dollars and cents and meetings," said Yukon Liberal Sandy Silver.

"It's about our community. Where we've come from and where we're going."

Yukon NDP Leader Liz Hanson said partnership is about "rebuilding relationships to really breathe life into our final agreements." 

Yukon Party leader Darrell Pasloski spoke of "incredible opportunities to collaborate over the next five years," and spoke of the government's signing of a resource development deal with the Kaska Nations and changing rules on land titles with the support of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation.

Pasloski did not directly mention either the court case over the Peel River watershed land use plan or modifications to environmental review through Bill S-6, since scrapped: two controversial files that have been a point of tension with First Nations during his government. 

"Since you entrusted me with the job of premier there have been many good days, and then there's days where I have learned some valuable lessons," he said.

"I think if you really care and believe in the future of the Yukon it's very important for you to vote," said Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations Peter Johnston. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Debate between parties

Hanson seemed the most intent to jab at opponents. 

One exchange took place as Pasloski mentioned his government's allocation of $3.5 million to implement recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Pasloski said "First Nations leaders should take the lead" in this matter.

Hanson responded that Pasloski was asking First Nations to lead on reconciliation itself, something she compared to "blaming the victim."

Another exchange came when Adeline Webber of the Yukon Aboriginal Women's Council said the group needs more support. Pasloski vowed a Yukon Party government would double funding for three Indigenous women's groups.

However, Hanson portrayed his government as having been slow to agree to an inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

"[The NDP caucus] spent weeks trying to get the Yukon government to agree to support the national inquiry. It took a gathering of women showing up in the legislative assembly to bear witness to this, to say by their presence that this is an important issue and government better pay attention. So it's good to hear the Yukon Party will put more money into this. We've had that commitment for years," she said to applause.

When Pasloski mentioned his party's opposition to a federal carbon tax, Silver said this opposition would be fruitless, akin to opposing winter.

Silver often mentioned the experience of his party's candidates, which include two former chiefs and the Kwanlin Dün First Nation's director of justice.

Candidates from the Yukon party, Liberals and NDP fielded questions about education, justice, Indigenous languages, climate change, food security and other issues. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Wary of promises 

The audience was attentive and polite, though the moderator on at least three occasions did not ask Pasloski for his response before moving on the next question.

Pasloski raised his hand and jokingly asked if she'd forgotten about him. 

The moderator said it was a mistake.

Two hours proved too a short a time for many in the audience, given the breadth of issues concerning First Nations in Yukon. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

A few people in the audience watched with arms folded, expressing a wariness of promises they fear won't be kept. 

"I kind of got some of my questions answered but they are going to have to use more specific language," said Jonathan Wurtak of Whitehorse, a member of the Teslin Tlingit First Nation.

That caution was shared by Whitehorse resident Debra-Leigh Reti.

"It was great to see many leaders coming up and asking a lot of  great questions," she said. "Let's see if these groups can back what they're saying they're going to do."