He wanted to know about reconciliation.
“I want to know how it’s 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, how it’s going to address integration and assimilation.”
Mike Smith, Assembly of First Nations regional chief and chair of Tagish Nation, put this question to the three party leaders at the Council of Yukon First Nations’ Territorial Leader Candidates Forum Thursday night at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.
“You don’t have to answer it tonight, I want you to think about it,” said Smith.
But the leaders of the Yukon Party, the Yukon NDP and the Yukon Liberal Party did answer it, along with many others on issues of importance to First Nations peoples, and all Yukoners.
Liberal Leader Sandy Silver was the first to respond to Smith’s question.
The Liberal candidates will be an “extremely important part” of the reconciliation process in the Yukon, he said.
“They are fierce and responsive and good people that want to work on reconciliation first and foremost.”
Liz Hanson, the leader of the NDP, said reconciliation is a process through which their are no short cuts.
“We deeply believe that it’s more than programs … it’s about how we change inside and how we unlearn what we thought was our history.”
Premier Darrell Pasloski of the Yukon Party pointed to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC’s) Calls to Action – 94 recommendations to redress harms caused by colonialism, government assimilation policies and the residential school system.
He said when the Calls to Action came out, he asked his government to look at the work that had already been done and submit a report to First Nation leaders.
“Reconciliation really needs to be led, I believe, by First Nations people, and supported by public government,” said Pasloski.
That’s why the Yukon Party would commit $3.5 million, if re-elected, to “assist First Nations as they come forward with the programs, coming forward with a plan to help us move forward and raise that awareness of reconciliation,” he said.
Chief Steve Smith of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations took issue with Pasloski’s reference to the Yukon government as the “public government.”
“It’s a divisive term,” he said in comments to media after the forum.
“It separates out First Nation people. We are a part of the Yukon and so to say that you only represent public government when it comes to certain positions is
counterproductive to the 25 per cent aboriginal people that live and work in the Yukon.”
First Nations people aren’t merely a “special interest group” to be represented by leaders like himself, said Smith, but an economic and cultural force that was here first and isn’t going anywhere.
“We’ve invested almost $60 million of our land claim settlement dollars as a whole … into the territory,” he said.
“We’re investors, we’re people who want to make up and take our rightful place in a true partnership with all Yukoners and trying to make the Yukon a better place for everybody.”
Though he wouldn’t endorse a candidate outright, Smith said Silver has been engaged with First Nations communities for the past five years, and that Hanson too, has experience working with First Nations.
“Those two candidates are certainly the ones who are more in tune with where I think First Nations as a whole want to go,” he said.
For nearly two and a half hours, the party leaders were asked about the plans for involving First Nations leaders in territorial budget-making, for retaining teachers in the communities, for affordable housing and protecting the environment.
Questions came from the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN), audience members, and from people in the communities through Facebook.
Early in the night, the parties were asked how they would implement final and self-government agreements to improve life for all Yukoners.
Hanson said the NDP would work on developing local economies in the communities.
Pasloski called the agreements “roadmaps to reconciliation,” and said that the Yukon is much further ahead today than it was five years ago.
The Yukon Party, Pasloski said, wants to open an office in Ottawa with CYFN so the two orders of government could jointly lobby the federal government. It also wants Yukon First Nations to have access to federal funds designated to “on-reserve” First Nations.
Silver said the Yukon Liberal party believes the Yukon government’s relationship with First Nations is its most important relationship.
“Yukon First Nations are integral partners in creating our economy,” he said, and also in preserving the environment.
For these reasons a Liberal government would protect the Peel Watershed, as per the original land use plan, support First Nations in administration of justice negotiations, and assist First Nations in registering land.
Silver also vowed to hold the Yukon Forum (the meeting of the premier and First Nations leaders) four times a year, or as often as desired by First Nations leaders.
The Pasloski government has held Yukon Forums once every other year since 2012.
“We don’t need to litigate, we need to work together,” said Silver.
Representing the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, Adeline Webber said her group was desperately underfunded and asked how the candidates would support First Nations women in the territory.
Pasloski answered first and said he has three daughters and can’t imagine the pain experienced by those who have lost loved ones to violence.
He noted his party’s promise to double funding to the Yukon Aboriginal Women’s Council, Whitehorse Aboriginal Women’s Circle and the Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society.
Silver said “there is no best jurisdiction in Canada when it comes to protection of women who have been sexually assaulted,” but that he wants to make it better in the Yukon.
NDP MLA Lois Moorcroft worked to get support in the legislature for the national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women, said Hanson.
“It’s good to hear the Yukon Party saying they’re going to put more money into this, we have had that commitment for years,” she said.
The Yukon government’s Women’s Directorate was established under an NDP government, she said, and an NDP government would ensure women’s groups are well represented and well supported today.
One of the night’s final questions circled back to reconciliation. How would the candidates implement the Calls to Action in the Yukon?
The premier said it was important that “the horrors of the past” are acknowledged and that children learn about them, so they aren’t repeated.
He stressed again that his government would support First Nations, but that they should lead the way toward reconciliation.
“I firmly believe that reconciliation, there isn’t a beginning and end, this should become a process that just becomes a part of who we are,” he said.
Silver said Canada is at the beginning of a healing process and the Liberals want to work with First Nations governments and Ottawa to implement the Calls to Action, specifically by closing gaps in the delivery of services.
He said he would build a monument for residential school students and build healing centres in the communities.
Hanson said she fundamentally disagrees with Pasloski’s view that First Nations should be in charge of reconciliation.
“First Nations are not responsible for colonialism, they’re not responsible for establishing residential schools,” she said.
“It’s like blaming the victims.”
The Yukon government has a responsibility to strengthen child care, education and parenting programs and to reform the child welfare system to keep children in their families and communities, she added.
“It is not the responsibility of First Nations to take it on, on their own.”