Chiefs, like premiers, want jobs and economic development, Yukon premier says
'First Nations people are looking for partners, not just people who invest and take our resources'
First Nations chiefs and provincial premiers have something important in common, the chair of this week's Council of the Federation talks says: both prioritize jobs and economic development.
That's why when it was Yukon Premier Darrel Pasloski's turn to host provincial and territorial leaders for their annual summer gathering, he decided to, in his words, put a "twist" on the agenda for the first day of the meeting, when premiers traditionally meet with the national Aboriginal organizations.
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"First Nations leaders and chiefs, like premiers, put a huge importance on the economy and growing jobs for their citizens and ultimately the benefits we all see from that," he said.
And so as things get underway in Haines Junction on Wednesday morning, invited Indigenous panelists from across Canada will share their "stories of success" in local resource development, explaining why it worked for them and how it might translate elsewhere.
That's not to say premiers won't talk about difficult and uncomfortable issues like the need for an inquiry into missing and murdered women. But they'll begin on a hopeful note, seeking invaluable shared ground on resource development.
At least 11 of the 13 provincial and territorial leaders arranged their travel north in time to attend the first day of meetings with Indigenous leaders.
Dwight Ball and Brian Gallant, both making the long trip from Atlantic Canada, are sending representatives in their place.
'Those days are over'
When the premiers return to Whitehorse for the rest of their talks through Friday, they'll be meeting at a cultural centre that is a success story in itself.
Early morning site recce mission for <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cof16?src=hash">#cof16</a>. Can't sleep anyway! <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/hw?src=hash">#hw</a> <a href="https://t.co/XHAh4hdPft">pic.twitter.com/XHAh4hdPft</a>—@janycemcgregor
The Kwanlin Dün First Nation's traditional territory is along the Yukon River, in the region that now includes Whitehorse.
When it negotiated its self-government agreement over a decade ago, it asked for settlement land along the river, including a cultural centre downtown to bring the community together.
The award-winning centre is busy and profitable, with both Indigenous and non-Indigenous groups using it. But the beautiful space is only part of what Chief Doris Bill hopes the premiers appreciate when she welcomes them to her land on Thursday.
"I think what they need to hear is centred around reconciliation," she told CBC News Tuesday.
"They need to understand that First Nations people are looking for partners. They're not just looking for people to come in and invest and take our resources... those days are long over."
But First Nations need help to acquire the expertise to properly evaluate project proposals.
"If there's something that we see is a potential business opportunity, we will go and learn all about that industry," she said.
That's where Pasloski's economic development priorities meet her own.
"If we can ensure that First Nations truly understand these projects that are being discussed, there's a greater opportunity for acceptance and to buy in to invest and to partner and ultimately we'll all benefit from that," Pasloski says.
"What these corporate partners need to do is understand the communities that they're going into. Many of them don't and I think that's where they fail," Bill says.
Kwanlin Dün has its own economic development corporation now.
Bill described a frustrating situation nearby when Chinese mining investors came in but never bothered to meet with the First Nation. They weren't working with existing land claim agreements. She blames governments for not taking the time to educate foreign investors.
'Turn it over'
Bill speaks proudly of how progressive her people have become. They operate the only First Nations health centre in the Yukon, open to non-First Nation residents as well.
As an urban First Nation, collaborative programs on community safety and homelessness were worked out sitting across the table from city councillors. Youth anti-violence initiatives have become a model for other communities.
Twenty-four of her youngest citizens — with another 78 on a waiting list — are in a day care, where local elders help pass on their language and culture.
Fifty young people from Kwanlin Dün are enrolled in post-secondary education programs — an area Pasloski too hopes to expand through and expansion for Yukon College, so more and more of the local economic activity employs Yukoners and First Nations.
Some 85 per cent of Bill's employees are First Nations already.
"Turn it over to our people. That's what we're asking," she said.
'Governments need to get serious'
That principle doesn't always pan out.
First Nations were invited to attend the First Ministers' climate change talks in Vancouver earlier this year, where they were told initiatives would be "Indigenous led" — and yet, she said, there were only a handful of First Nations in the room.
"Premiers and governments need to get serious about building positive working relationships with Indigenous people on an equal level," she said. "We are a government here in the Yukon and we're seen as a government and we're treated as a government."
"For far too long we've taken a back seat to a lot of these projects that happen on our land. No more. Those days are over."
After their economic development session in the morning, the national Aboriginal organizations and premiers will update their collective progress towards another important area of reconciliation: murdered and missing Indigenous women.
An announcement of the commissioners, format and timelines for a federal inquiry is not expected until later this summer.
The leaders will also discuss the next step following the federal Liberal government officially adopting the United Nations declaration on the rights of Indigenous peoples in May.
The Thursday and Friday discussions in Whitehorse will focus on a much-anticipated agreement on internal trade, health care transfers and the implementation of the Canada energy strategy premiers agreed to last summer.
But serious disagreements between provinces continue to snag moves to set a national price on carbon as part of Canada's climate change strategy, something the federal government wants to accomplish before First Ministers meet again this fall.
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Follow the CBC News live blog of the 2016 Council of the Federation talks in Yukon:
With files from Susan Lunn