2 decades on, Ed Schultz still Whitehorse's 1st and only Indigenous city councillor

'I was hoping, with my time there, it would encourage others to run,' says Schultz. 'I'm somewhat disappointed.'

When his term ended in 1994, Schultz thought others might follow in his footsteps

'I grew up recognizing how different we were treated, which brought a different perspective to the council chambers — I honestly believe that,' says Ed Schultz, who was a Whitehorse city councillor from 1991 to 1994. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

When Ed Schultz decided to run for Whitehorse city council in 1991, he had no intention of campaigning as the First Nations candidate.

"As a matter of fact, I had a very deliberate strategy, to the extent possible, [to] not even talk about it or mention it," he recalled.

"I thought being a citizen of Whitehorse was the only qualifier that was necessary ...  and that my ethnicity really didn't have anything to do with whether I was qualified or not to be in city hall."

Still, that didn't stop reporters and voters from noting that he was, in fact, the first Indigenous Yukoner to campaign for, and ultimately win, a seat at the council table. To this day, there has not been another. 

That appears likely to hold, even after next week's municipal election. 

"I was hoping, with my time there, it would encourage others to run," said Schultz. "I'm somewhat disappointed."

Even though Schultz didn't actively campaign in 1991 based on his ethnicity, he admits he saw his cultural background as a usable asset. He said he felt the city could benefit from his perspective, especially as Yukon First Nations moved toward self-government.

A different perspective

"I recognized there would be a need for greater collaboration," he said.

"I grew up recognizing how different we were treated, which brought a different perspective to the council chambers — I honestly believe that."

Whitehorse city hall. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

As an example, he cites a debate that raged over the establishment of a retirement home in Riverdale. Schultz recalls how some residents and council members talked about the drawbacks of having more seniors in the neighbourhood.

Schultz weighed in and talked about his own cultural background — and, he feels, ultimately helped sway the vote.

"Our firm belief as Indigenous people is that our seniors or elders are to be the most highly respected people, and you should be honoured to have them in your neighbourhood and wanting to live amongst you," he recalled saying at the time.

"In the end, well, that seniors' place is in Riverdale today. And I'm pretty certain it has enriched the neighbourhood and the quality of life there."

Residual effects

According to Statistics Canada, roughly 18 per cent of Whitehorse's population in 2016 identified themselves as Aboriginal. An ethnically representative city council would therefore have at least one Indigenous member.

Schultz is not entirely sure why nobody has followed in his footsteps. But he said history may be a guide.

"We have to remember that, at one point in time, that relationship between the local First Nation population and the City of Whitehorse was highly strained, highly polarized, argumentive, and at times at odds over not just land claims, but a whole host of other things," he said.

"I think we're still living with the residual effects."

He also suggested that, since the 1990s, Yukon's First Nations governments have been "absorbing as much talent as they can."

Bev Buckway, a former mayor of Whitehorse, suggested the same thing.

"I think when you look back at the pictures at city hall over the years, of the makeup of council, you'll see pretty strong representation of one demographic — and not something that's pretty reflective of all the people of the city," she said.

Advance polling happened last week in Whitehorse. Voting day for most people is on Thursday. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"First Nations individuals can be very involved in their own government, and if they're busy doing that, they possibly don't have time to be involved with municipal politics," she said.

Buckway also said city politics is just not everyone's cup of tea — especially if they're interested in social issues.

"A lot of the work that happens within the city is about the city's assets, and the infrastructure of the city, and not so much some of the social programs that people feel they could make more of an impact with," she said.

'We work off the land'

Tahltan First Nation member Jeremy Linville was born and raised in Whitehorse, and now works with the Youth Of Today Society. He argued that, traditionally, government has "never really been a thing" among First Nations.

Jeremy Linville, with the Youth Of Today Society, says seeing more Indigenous people in government would be empowering. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"We didn't have a government. We never did," Linville said.

"We work off the land. We don't work under a system of people."

He said First Nations people have become accustomed to not seeing themselves on the municipal ballot.

Still, Linville would like to see more Indigenous people involved in all levels of government — municipal included.

"I think that would empower people," he said.

CBC News requested interviews with the chiefs of Whitehorse's two First Nations — Kwanlin Dun, and the Ta'an Kwach'an Council — about municipal representation, but they declined.

Kwanlin Dun First Nations Chief Doris Bill was outspoken, however, at an all-candidates forum in Whitehorse earlier this month, saying she was disappointed she didn't hear more from the candidates about building relationships with First Nations. 

Kwanlin Dun First Nations Chief Doris Bill at an all-candidates forum in Whitehorse earlier this month. At the time, Bill said she was disappointed she didn't hear more about building relationships with First Nations. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Get involved, Schultz says

Schultz did not run for a second three-year term on Whitehorse city council. He continued on in politics, though, serving two terms as grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, and also running unsuccessfully for the leadership of the Yukon Liberal Party in 2005.

He encourages First Nations citizens to get involved in all levels of government — and not just as elected officials. He suggests sitting on boards or committees as a first step. 

"It fundamentally changed my life in a big way. It allowed me to be exposed to a broader audience of people who didn't have as strong an understanding of what we were trying to accomplish, on the First Nation front," he said.

"That Aboriginal perspective, I think, would help in a long way in understanding what are the causes of some of the challenges the city is facing — whether that's the street people, or housing issues, or just planning."

With files from Claudiane Samson and Tara McCarthy