We are here, once again, to meet as a distinct aboriginal nation, and make decisions on behalf of our people. It is an important time in the history of our nation.
We’ve been in a state of indecision since June 21. We cannot afford to remain at this impasse. We have a responsibility to the people to establish the direction we are moving in and we have a responsibility to strengthen the nation on all fronts.
That means, for this assembly, we will be discussing our constitution, negotiations, activity around resource development oil and gas, forestry and mining. We will also need to discuss tourism, and culture. We will talk about how we can draw on the wisdom of our elders, and address the needs of our youth.
We have much work to do.
There is a need to have serious discussion and debate to address our constitution. Our constitution is intended to bring the Kaska together and create the foundation for the development of common structures to support efforts such as governance, education, culture and language programs.
The constitution defines the relationship between our communities and our central organizations. It will speak to creating a law making body, whose power will be delegated to it by the communities. Most importantly, the constitution will define and protect the rights of Kaska citizens. And, through our constitution, it is proposed that our elders will take their rightful place in the decision-making of our nation.
The constitution will provide us with solid footing to move forward to tackle broader issues. We know that there will continue to be increased pressure to develop our lands and resources.
Governments and industry won’t stop their efforts to alienate and exploit our lands and resources simply because we are not at the negotiating table. So we must organize ourselves to protect our lands and resources.
We must decide on an approach to reengage in the negotiation process in the Yukon. There is a need to set direction at this assembly in order to carve out the position we want to take to the federal and territorial governments. We must adopt political and legal strategies to provide clear direction for our negotiators.
Years ago, our elders directed us to represent all Kaska interests together. We have to revitalize and reestablish a single negotiating team; one with the necessary mandate to reengage governments in substantive negotiations. And we need our negotiators to conclude an acceptable land claim agreement that protects Kaska interests.
The political situation in the Yukon is unstable and an election may be called at any time. We must be prepared to voice our concerns so our issues are heard during the election campaign. And when a new government emerges we must be in a position to begin immediate discussions with the new premier and cabinet.
Oil and Gas
On both sides of the border, the oil and gas industry is positioning itself to explore and develop the oil and gas resources of our territory.
Right now, in BC, we are faced with the immediate threat of significant resource development. There have been expressions of interest by industry in development on lands that we have selected near Blue River, Lower Post, and Fireside. The BC government has indicated they will make a decision in October about selling our lands for oil and gas development.
We will engage with government at the negotiating table on this subject, however, we must understand that the negotiating process may not work. We must be prepared to launch legal action against the government and industry, if it is becomes necessary to safeguard our interests.
While industry eyes our land in BC, there is activity in the Yukon as well. There are indications that government would like to do further work on the regulatory side of the Yukon Oil and Gas Act to streamline the regulatory process in order to open up our lands and resources for development.
In the mean time, the pipeline debate continues.
We have been approached by one of the owners of the natural gas resource in Alaska, British Petroleum, to assist them in fast tracking the process in Canada in an effort to get the pipeline built.
We have responded to them and put them on notice that protection and settlement of our rights is our priority — not the building of pipelines.
However, we know that if we don’t open some form of dialogue with industry and government on these multi-billion dollar projects, we may find that these projects will be planned without our involvement. To address this concern, the first order of business is to negotiate a common understanding that, when our rights are settled and the pipeline project proceeds, we must have access to equity, training, jobs, contracting opportunities and agreements to offset any negative impacts to our communities.
There is also considerable interest in the development of known mineral resources within our traditional territory.
We must negotiate directly with those mining companies that have expressed an interest in our traditional territory to ensure that these projects do not proceed without our full involvement.
While we have much work to do when it comes to mining, we have had some success in the forestry sector. We have been very active in the Yukon, and we have negotiated a good agreement with the Government of Canada. This agreement will lay the groundwork for future forest development and planning in the traditional territory in the Yukon.
In BC, we’ve just signed a similar forestry agreement.
Now, we need to focus on negotiating fair and reasonable forestry agreements with the private sector to make certain that we are fully involved in planning, and to ensure that our people get economic benefits from any activity in our traditional territory.
While these are important agreements, the most difficult task is still ahead of us — to implement these forestry agreements, and to implement them based on a Kaska Nation approach.
We’ve got to work together to improve our internal working relationships. We’ve got to coordinate our efforts and develop skills in our communities. We’ve got to hold governments accountable to agreements that they sign with us.
We cannot allow government to act unilaterally. The example you see at Liard Bridge must never be repeated.
When we do allow forest activity to occur in our traditional territory we must be certain that it is done on a sustainable basis — respecting the rights of our people, protecting the habitat of the wildlife, and any forestry developments must preserve the beauty of our territory.
Sharing the beauty of our land with others can bring economic opportunities to our communities.
We have to continue our efforts to establish a national tourism strategy. We’ve made some small gains in this sector with the purchase of the Lower Liard Hot Springs Lodge and we are very close to an agreement to purchase Trapper Ray’s.
But this is only a start. We need to look at the entire traditional territory and identify opportunities and plan to develop the tourism sector. There is much more work needed to build a tourism base for our economy.
Not only must we have orderly development of our resources, but we also need to look at developing our people.
Out nation is a young nation with the majority of the population under the age of 30. We don’t have enough young people in training. We don’t have enough young people in university and college. We don’t even have enough young people in high school.
What we do have is an increased dependence by our young people on the welfare economy. We have more and more young people turning to drugs and alcohol. We have youth who see a lack of opportunity and who feel a sense of hopelessness.
The future of our nation rests on the shoulders of our youth. Many of our young people are crying out for help, and as leaders, we must respond. At this assembly, it is my hope that the Kaska Dena Council and Kaska Tribal Council will agree to work together with our youth to set up a conference so that our young people can have a forum to tell us about their problems — but more importantly about their hopes, their dreams, their visions for the future.
There are some programs in place now to help our young people. The Kaska Dena Council is working to establish a wilderness guide training program to be conducted over the next year.
The Kaska Dena Council also sponsored a youth leadership camp this summer at Moose Lake. It was a very successful camp. Elders like Auntie Mida and her cousins Elsie, George and Angus McDonald were working with youth, teaching them about our language, culture and history.
These are just two examples of the kinds of initiatives we have to undertake to build the next generation of young, healthy Kaska. It is not enough. We must put in place more long-term programs that will address the needs of our youth.
We need to help our youth find creative outlets as well. The art of our people is under siege, with very little evidence of Dena art in galleries, exhibits and collections. We aim to change that. We need to encourage our artists to share their work and we need to encourage them to share their knowledge with young Kaska artists.
To support that effort, we encourage all Kaska artists to participate in an exhibit of Kaska art that we are putting together. A show has been confirmed for Whitehorse, from May 22–July 15, 2003 at the Yukon Arts Centre.
The Society of Yukon Artists of Native Ancestry (SYANA) has agreed to help us put the exhibit together. We have secured funding from Foothills Pipelines and we are working to identify other corporate sponsors as well.
Finally, we know we must involve our elders more in the day-to-day management of our organizations. Kaska Dena Council has agreed to implement a policy to so that elders are present and involved in all major meetings and negotiations.
Kaska Dena Council is also undertaking a video program that will allow us to capture the traditional knowledge that our elders wish to share with us.
Our elders carry within them the history and tradition of our people. Their knowledge is invaluable and if we don’t take steps to record and catalogue that knowledge now, it will be lost forever.
This is a high priority for the Kaska Dena Council. It will support the fact that we are the original owners of Dena Keyih.
In conclusion, I would like to reaffirm that the Kaska Dena Council is prepared to work cooperatively with all Kaska organizations to protect Kaska rights, to protect Kaska language, tradition and culture. And to work toward building a better future for all Kaskas.