Canada can learn from Yukon's unique partnership
From Tuesday's Globe and Mail July 29, 2008 at 4:20 AM EDT
WHITEHORSE — In this often forgotten part of Canada, there is a revolution under way. And with any luck, and with further progress, it may be a model for what native/non-native relations can be in this country.
"The settlement of land claims and the increased engagement of the First Nations people in the political process and the economy have transformed and improved the most important relationship in the Yukon," says University of Waterloo professor Ken Coates, an authority on the North.
Few Canadians took notice when the federal government and the Yukon First Nations signed the Umbrella Final Agreement in 1993. As of today, it has provided the foundation for land-claims agreements with 11 of Yukon's 14 native bands.
When the first four signed their pacts in 1995, many predicted disaster. The deals were unique in that they gave the bands extraordinary and unprecedented powers of self-government - including the authority to draft and pass their own legislation.
In many ways, the experiment was designed to fail. The aboriginal bands were thrust into nationhood with little consideration given to the capacity in which they had to take on these responsibilities. They were given the right to form their own governments, build their own economies, with virtually no assistance.
The first few years were discouraging. Native leaders, by their own admission, didn't have a clue what they were doing. But they didn't do what many expected them to: give up. They didn't drink away the windfalls from their land-claims settlements either, no matter the stereotype. They put the money in trusts until the day came when they could begin investing it wisely.
In the years since the first agreements were signed, the various councils have been busy building governments, a painstaking and tedious process, according to Grand Chief Andy Carville. Mr. Carville is head of the Council of Yukon First Nations and speaks for most of the tribes in the territory.
Getting out from under the oppressive regime of the Indian Act has given Yukon native communities their pride and dignity back, Mr. Carville says. Self-governance has allowed the various bands to focus attention and resources on what's most important to them, like survival of their culture. They have the power to take over responsibility for areas such as education, health and justice - and some are doing just that.
The Carcross/Tagish First Nation is close to passing the Family Act, which will give them complete control over the care of children. Another is developing an education curriculum. A third is designing justice legislation, while a fourth is putting the final touches on its own Fish and Wildlife Act.
How well it's carried out on the ground will be the next big test of this grand experiment.
Much of this wouldn't have been done without the co-operation of the Yukon government. While there have been inevitable sources of conflict - which have prompted lawsuits in some cases - more often it has been a mutually respectful and supportive relationship. Mr. Carville told me that Premier Dennis Fentie "wants to make sure we are true partners in the North. That will help make us more self-sufficient."
Mr. Fentie told me: "We're building the Yukon's future together."
In this case, they appear to be more than nice-sounding words.
The Yukon Forum is a four-times-a-year meeting between members of Mr. Fentie's cabinet and the chiefs of all the self-governing nations to discuss issues of mutual concern. The Cooperation in Governance Act recognizes that the native bands and Yukon government both have jurisdiction and authority over many similar matters. The Yukon Chapter of the Northern Strategy - a federally funded economic development program - is a constantly evolving vision of the territory shared by the government and native bands. The Yukon Oil and Gas Act states that no exploration will take place where land claims have not been settled without the consent of the band.
And on it goes. Mr. Fentie realizes that progress in the territory will not be made unless it is joint progress. In Yukon, collaborative governance is more than just a catchy buzz phrase. Of course, it's still early in the land-claims process. It will likely be years before native groups are governed by institutions that resemble the governments most of us know. Down the road, the Council of Yukon First Nations will likely morph into some type of central government for the aboriginal community at large.
Not all is perfect. Drug and alcohol problems are rampant in the native communities. Most people in Yukon jails and prisons are aboriginal. Of those, 80 per cent will reoffend. But many observers see hope on the horizon. More aboriginal children than ever before are graduating from high school and going on to get some postsecondary education. They are returning to their communities to become leaders.
"I think all our lives are better now and will be much better in 10, 20 years as a result of these agreements," Mr. Carville says. "We'll show Canada this should be the model for native/non-native relations in this country."