Analysis

Yukon Liberal leader hits high points of First Nations' wants, needs

Sandy Silver scored the most points, talking about the importance of reconciliation and First Nations' treaties, as the leaders of the three main political parties in the territory addressed the Aboriginal business community.

Liberal, NDP and Yukon Party leaders court First Nations' chiefs, businesses during separate luncheons

Yukon Liberal leader Sandy Silver, premier and Yukon Party leader Darrell Pasloski, Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson (CBC)

The Yukon Liberals scored the most points, talking about the importance of reconciliation and First Nations' treaties, as the leaders of the three main political parties in the territory addressed the Aboriginal business community.

The Yukon First Nations Chamber of Commerce (YFNCC) hosted the Liberal Party, the NDP and the Yukon Party at three separate luncheon events over the past two weeks.

For the politicians, it was a golden opportunity to court the First Nations' vote and deliver messages tailored to the audience of influential leaders, chiefs and heads of First Nations' development corporations.

It's a demographic that flexed its muscle during last fall's federal election when the Council of Yukon First Nations took the unusual step of officially exhorting Yukon Indigenous people to vote strategically for the Liberal Party. 

'Building a renewed... relationship': Liberals

Yukon Liberal leader Sandy Silver's speech was crafted to appeal to First Nations' discontent with the prevailing order of things under Premier Darrell Pasloski.

In fact, the outgoing head of the First Nations council, Ruth Massie, told CBC in June that First Nations will remember how they "had to go the distance to make our point" in order to attempt agreements with the Yukon Party government. 

Silver said he would improve that relationship, repeating the importance of "spirit and intent" and "honouring the treaties" as well as self government and reconciliation — all significant principles for Indigenous leaders. 
'We are committed to building a renewed government-to-government relationship with First Nations people.' (Dave Croft/CBC)

Silver also promised to adopt the original land-use plan for the Peel River Watershed and reject Bill S-6. Both are controversial because Yukon First Nations say they undermine their final land claim agreements. 

"We are committed to building a renewed government-to-government relationship with First Nations people, built on cooperation, partnership, on respecting the treaties, and self-governing agreements," Silver said.

He also said once elected premier, he and his cabinet would meet to "set priorities" with all Yukon chiefs within 30 days of forming office.

He said he'd also make sure the legislative assembly was more reflective and inclusive to Indigenous culture. 

Self gov't 'means a great deal to me': Premier

In sharp contrast to Silver, the territory's premier and Yukon Party leader Darrell Pasloski did not hit all those points the First Nations leaders are often looking for.

But he touted his five years experience leading the territory, saying "I have been a strong voice for Yukon values on a national stage."

Yukon First Nations may have found that assertion hard to swallow.  

Both former Prime Minister Stephen Harper and former Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt have said on the record, that Pasloski's government agreed with Bill S-6, which First Nations people launched a lawsuit against.

In fact, it was Pasloski's stance on Bill S-6 that ended up playing a substantial role in galvanizing the Council of Yukon First Nations to endorse Liberal MP Larry Bagnell during last fall's federal election.

Self government 'is something that means a great deal to me, after spending five years speaking to and working with First Nations.' (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

But Pasloski carefully avoided those contentious issues during his luncheon, and focused on the economy.

He said First Nations people and their development corporations are central to Yukon's economic future.

He said his party's economic platform "will include incentives around expanding sectors like the fast-growing IT sector. It will include commitment that will generate new opportunities for investment and it will spur innovative approaches to the developments of our homegrown industry and labour force."

He also promised that a Yukon Party government would bring in a second fibre optic link, which he said, would benefit rural communities and help witheducational opportunities.

"We are incredibly fortunate to live in a region where self government and self determination are more than an aspiration, they are a core part of our identity. It is something that means a great deal to me, after spending five years speaking to and working with First Nations."

'Rebuild the bridges to trust': NDP

NDP leader Liz Hanson got a polite reception from the crowd while Silver received spontaneous applause at points throughout his speech, and Pasloski got none. One person applauded loudly for Hanson, but the audience didn't join in.

Regardless, Hanson vowed that her government would heal the divisions wrought by the Yukon Party government, and that it would focus on reconciliation for Indigenous peoples and honouring their final agreements.

'We believe that with openness, straight talking and honesty, we can and we must rebuild the bridges to trust and reconciliation.' (CBC)

"I believe that if we view the agreements... as being enabling, rather than prescriptive, the opportunities for Yukon are limitless," she said.

"We believe that with openness, straight talking and honesty, we can and we must rebuild the bridges to trust and reconciliation."

Hanson vowed to honour that principle, specifically pledging to change old-fashioned mining laws to reflect today's reality.

She said an NDP government would "work together to develop the modern successor legislation that despite the best efforts of First Nations governments, remains undone. Together we can ensure that the new mining regime is fair and protects existing investments under current laws."

At the end of her speech, Hanson telegraphed who she obviously sees as the main threat in the upcoming election; in a not-so-veiled reference to Liberal leader Sandy Silver, Hanson pointed out that the "elephant in the room" was the perception that a Yukon Liberal government would be best positioned to work with a federal Liberal government.

She said the precedent just isn't there, pointing out that former NDP premiers Tony Penikett and Piers McDonald were able to achieve final land-claim agreements and devolution agreements respectively, while working with federal Conservative and Liberal Party governments. 

'I want to see a vision': Grand chief

The grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, Peter Johnston, says he won't officially endorse any of the parties, but he does admit Aboriginal people in the territory need a change. 

Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Peter Johnston. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"We have self-governing First Nations that have been in power for over 25-plus years now, and there's still that resistance and reluctance to recognize them as a member of the Yukon government fabric," he said.    

"I want to see a vision for the next five years. Do we need to sit here and just take the status quo? No. We do need to come together as a collective to build our strength as unified nations."

So, how significant of a change is Johnston looking for? Meaningful First Nations' participation in Yukon budget discussions, for one. 

"Until we get that opportunity to have that seat at the table when we're doing budget discussions on the $1.3 billion [Yukon's annual budget] and where that money is going, it's never going to be a true partnership."

As the party platforms roll out over the next few weeks, keep a close eye on how the leaders address that question. 

It goes to the very heart of First Nations' expectations in how Yukon is governed.

About the Author

Nancy Thomson

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.