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Going It Alone

Going It Alone

Five years ago, Justin Ferbey helped his Yukon community become one of Canada’s few self-governing First Nations. That was the easy part.

“We became the masters of our own destiny,” says Justin Ferbey of Carcross-Tagish’s self-government treaty, “but we inherited major challenges.” Photograph by Mark Prins.

On January 4, 2011, in a small Yukon town called Carcross, a man blockaded a government office with a lock and chain. He had recently refused a transitional job offer from the Carcross-Tagish First Nation, the government that signs his welfare checks. Now he and a dozen others gathered in protest of the CTFN’s clan-based electoral system, shrinking welfare payments and lack of services. They even denounced the First Nation’s administration as a “dictatorship.”

In 2006, Carcross-Tagish gained self-governing powers over its 553 people, 1,500 square kilometres of land, and budget. Today, it has a precious $5.8 million a year to build its fledgling bureaucracy and deliver basic services, as well as tackle pervasive poverty, reinvigorate local culture, improve miserable high-school graduation rates and overcome a legacy of colonialism and church abuse. Hence its effort to trim the welfare payments that consume one-sixth of its budget—and a disgruntled recipient’s decision to seek out a sturdy chain.

The First Nation desperately needs more money, and it has two financing options: negotiate for more funding from Ottawa—hardly an easy task—or build an economy to tax. The job of creating that economy falls to a man named Justin Ferbey, who runs the CTFN’s $7 million development corporation. In March, two months after the Carcross protest, he addressed an audience of thirty-five in a Whitehorse conference centre to solicit investment in his First Nation. The overwhelmingly white crowd was composed of local developers, entrepreneurs and the human incarnations of government acronyms. Most, including Ferbey, dressed in the business casual of the North: jeans.

Forty-year-old Ferbey has enormous forearms, a sturdy build and an MBA from the University of Liverpool. His voice booms, and when he speaks, a single hard crease ridges both sides of his nose and mouth, the product of many frowns and smiles. Ferbey mastered the language of business during his graduate studies, but he remains rooted in his First Nation’s local politics, making him well-equipped to build financial bridges.

Carcross, some seventy kilometres south of Whitehorse, is the economic hub of the CTFN, and at the conference centre Ferbey touted the town’s world-class bike trails and the thousands of tourists who pass through every year en route from Alaska to Whitehorse. The First Nation’s leaders want to avoid mining and logging on their land, so the CTFN’s economic fate rests on tourism. According to Ferbey, there’s just one problem. “We have customers, but no product,” he told the conference attendees. “The bikers and tourists have almost nothing to buy, so no money stays in the community.”

Ferbey sold the highlights of his plan: cabins to house cyclists; a five-star resort to attract less rugged travellers; an art gallery; and a downtown core filled with commercial storefronts. Most of the audience members were enthusiastic, but a few pressed for harder details. Ferbey rattled off some facts and figures. “The thing about sustainable business in the Yukon is that the word ‘sustainable’ is almost a misnomer,” he conceded. “The fact is that our ‘have-not’ territory receives a billion dollars a year from Canada. It’s tough to get started without government help.”

The CTFN is one of seventeen self-governing First Nations in Canada, eleven of which are in the Yukon. They’re not nation-states—more like nation-territories, with new local authority over matters like land use, business regulation, taxation and education. Self-government does not mean full-blown independence, and each agreement is different, but it grants far more power to communities than Indian Act band councils ever did. The proliferation of these agreements is historic, and their success or failure will determine the future relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the federal government. The new era of Aboriginal self-government could result in development through devolution—or simply a more divided country. That outcome largely hinges on leaders like Ferbey.

Sometime early in the twentieth century, Ferbey’s great-grandfather, Thomas Takamatsu, immigrated to Vancouver from Japan. By 1920, he was one of just twenty Asians living in the Yukon. He married an Aboriginal woman from Carcross, had two children and supplemented his income by chopping wood for a local residential school—one of the institutions where church and state infamously laboured to “take the Indian out of the child.”

After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s government, spurred by racial paranoia, started sending Japanese Canadians to internment camps. When the Mounties began combing the Yukon, Takamatsu fled his community and family. The RCMP never found him, and he died alone in a makeshift camp in November of 1942. His family did not mourn him with a potlatch—a Pacific Northwest Aboriginal custom—because the gatherings had been banned in Canada since 1884.

One of Takamatsu’s daughters—Ferbey’s grandmother—stayed in Carcross and married a Swede. (Today, Ferbey’s multiracial heritage means the federal government does not recognize him as a Status Indian.) The couple had a daughter, who, at the age of sixteen, became pregnant with the child of an indigenous man. Justin Ferbey was born in 1971, and his mother put him up for adoption. A white couple in Whitehorse—one of Polish origin, the other Ukrainian—took him in.

Ferbey’s adoptive mother says he was raised with little knowledge of Aboriginal culture. “It was the 1970s,” she told me, “and in those days adoptive parents didn’t really emphasize a child’s heritage.” Ferbey attended the only high school in the Yukon at the time, and though he shared classes with some of his biological cousins, they had no idea they were related.

After earning a degree in neural psychology and biology from the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Ferbey returned to Whitehorse to work at the local jail, which, he recalled, was filled with Aboriginals. He was aware of his origins by this point; however, when he turned his focus to troubled Aboriginal youth, it was “not because we shared a skin colour, but because my family believed in social justice.”

Hungry for more educational experience, Ferbey “gave up moose burgers for noodles” and moved to Korea to teach English as a second language. He became fluent in Korean, and earned a black belt in tae kwon do. (“Learning to do the splits is simple,” he explained. “Two people yank your legs apart for a couple months. It hurts, but it works.”) Four years later, he moved to Japan—the country his great-grandfather left nearly a century earlier—where he spent another three years teaching. Same drill: he learned Japanese and karate. He spent a lot of time in dojos, where he acquired his fearsome forearms.

Finally, at thirty, Ferbey decided it was time to return to Canada. He enrolled in a commerce program at the Institute of Indigenous Government in Vancouver and met his future wife, a flight attendant from Osaka. (They recently had triplets.) The federal Department of Indian Affairs—which this May was renamed the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development—recruited him straight out of the classroom to help negotiate treaties with First Nations in British Columbia.

However, he would soon sit on the other side of the negotiating table. On a flight to Whitehorse in early 2005, Ferbey ran into a man from Carcross, who told him that the CTFN had recently finalized its self-government treaty—but the community had voted against it. The leaders of the CTFN caught wind of an estranged son embedded within the federal behemoth. They asked him to return to Carcross: would he lead a get-out-the-vote campaign in a second ratification effort?

When Ferbey first became involved with the CTFN, former colleague Beverly Sembsmoen said, “people wanted to know who the hell this guy was. Then they learned about his roots, and he enjoyed a honeymoon period.” That May, the treaty passed on its second attempt, with 69 percent of voters favouring self-government. The treaty took effect in 2006, and Ferbey has worked with the CTFN ever since.

In Canada, the only “two solitudes” worth talking about today concern Aboriginal people and the rest of the country. The division is rooted in a history of racism and forced assimilation; Aboriginal communities are our ghettos, and their living standards are a national disgrace. On average, these communities have higher rates of violence, unemployment and suicide, and lower levels of income, education and access to clean water. Aboriginals account for less than 4 percent of Canada’s general population, but over 20 percent of its prison population.

In a 2008 op-ed for the Globe and Mail, Ferbey called self-government a means to move beyond this “historically dysfunctional relationship with the Canadian government.” He lauded his First Nation’s new partnership with Canada and described self-government as a triumph of a tolerant society. “My own first nation is no longer an Indian band governed by the federal Indian Act,” he wrote. “We have negotiated to become a legitimate level of government in Canada.” At some basic level, self-government represents rupture rather than reconciliation—a conviction that federal policy has failed beyond reform, and that the less power Ottawa has, the better. Perhaps that which is more separate can be more equal.

Gold, God and war brought three successive waves of white traffic to Carcross. In 1896, a local named Skookum Jim Mason discovered a rich gold deposit and set off the Klondike Gold Rush, which would attract some sixty thousand fortune-seekers to the Yukon. Seven years later, the Anglican Church opened a school in town, aiming to save souls by suppressing indigenous culture. During World War II, the United States army bulldozed through the Yukon and BC to build a highway connecting Alaska with Washington state. Meanwhile, Yukon’s Aboriginal people were governed by Canada’s Indian Act; like the incarcerated and the insane, they were wards of the state. They were not permitted to vote, own property or, thanks to the residential-school system, educate their own children.

In 1973, a group of indigenous leaders from the Yukon, led by Chief Elijah Smith, travelled to Ottawa to negotiate with Pierre Trudeau’s government. Smith was an Aboriginal World War II veteran who saw equality on the battlefield but returned to a racist country, and the group delivered a landmark document on behalf of twelve First Nations of the Yukon. “Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow” thundered with indignation (“Please tell us what you are doing to our children, because they are breaking our hearts”) and called for a settlement “to enable the Indian people in the Yukon to live and work together on equal terms with the Whiteman.” For the CTFN, the legal battle with Ottawa would last thirty-two years.

Professor Yale Belanger of Alberta’s University of Lethbridge defines self-government as “government designed, established and administered by native people.” Some of the earliest indigenous communities to achieve it were the Cree and Naskapi First Nations of northern Quebec, in 1984, and the Sechelt Indian Band of British Columbia, in 1986. Self-government annuls the dominion of the Indian Act, the federal statute regulating Indian status, the band council system and reserve management. Although Ottawa still pays most of the bills, and retains control over jurisdictions like defence, key areas of local autonomy under self-government include spending, social services and internal governance. With the stroke of a pen, the CTFN gained a far greater say in how its land would be developed, its money spent and its people governed.

Most of the CTFN’s citizens live in Carcross, where the government offices are located. Four majestic mountains, their trees balding with altitude, surround the town. Winter chill confines residents to overcrowded, pastel-coloured wood houses, where they live with the standard results of shoddy Indian-Act housing: cold and mould. Ferbey lives in a two-bedroom house with a funky smell and  warped front door.

Carcross’ unremarkable new government building was completed in 2007. It counts a full-time staff of about forty, a number that doubles in the summer, including part-time workers. One of the government’s first orders of business in 2005 was to pass a new constitution, featuring a twist on a famous American proclamation: “Citizens of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation shall enjoy equal rights to life and liberty and the pursuit of a way of life that promotes their language, culture and heritage.”

Ferbey joined the new administration as a senior official, then helped build a government apparatus from scratch. This marked the end of his so-called honeymoon period. “People expected money to rain from the sky,” he said. “I had to say no a lot.” The nation was freer than ever, but as poor as before. “We became the masters of our own destiny, but we inherited major challenges. You can’t fix a broken community overnight.”

Still, they are trying. The First Nation abolished the distinction between “Status” and “non-Status”  Indians, a federally mandated anachronism that continues to divide many Aboriginal communities around the country. Non-Status Indians are those who, like Ferbey, consider themselves Aboriginal but aren’t recognized as such by the federal government. Many have lost their status by, for example, marrying non-Aboriginals or voting in Canadian elections, before the Indian Act was amended in 1985. But the CTFN recognizes its people only as “citizens,” which has important material consequences: whereas the Department of Aboriginal Affairs only provides post-secondary educational funding for “Status Indians,” the CTFN makes this money available to all citizens. The same goes for housing subsidies. However, since federal funding is indexed to the number of previously recognized Status Indians, who only constitute about half of Carcross-Tagish’s population, the new government is chronically shortchanged.

The CTFN has revamped the elementary school curriculum, and started classes to teach Tlingit, one of the barely surviving local languages. (The last local fluent speaker of Tagish, another language, died in 2008.) An unfinished piece of legislation called the Family Act also promises a new approach to child welfare. Current Yukon government policies allow the seizure of minors from parents deemed unfit, but the new law would allow extended family members, such as grandparents, to adopt those children.

The First Nation is free to pass its own laws and draft its own budget, provided that it does not violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms or fail to deliver certain basic services. This is a radical shift from Ottawa’s distant omnipotence. “Does self-government mean we always get things right?” Ferbey asked. “No. But are we better off than if a faraway Ottawa decides? I’ll argue until the end of time that the answer is yes. ”

However, one senior CTFN official argued that his community was “set up for failure” because Ottawa starves self-governing First Nations of adequate financing. The details of the fiscal negotiations are Byzantine; Ferbey pointed to a 2006 report, commissioned by the Canadian government and written by former Finance Department official Richard Zuker, which suggested that First Nations like the CTFN received only half the federal funding they deserved based on the responsibilities they assumed. Self-government gave the CTFN the freedom to dream, but few materials with which to build, and fiscal negotiations are ongoing. One local official called the current levels of funding “chump change,” and added, “The federal government wants its cake, and for us to feed it to them too.”

Ferbey, who has had the rare experience of representing the other side, said the relationship is more complex. “I know from my time with the feds there was no nefarious master plan to oppress Aboriginals,” he said. “But I can now see that they are sometimes intellectually dishonest, and there is absolutely no respect for local expertise.” In 2008, he attended a negotiation over income tax that nearly ended in blows.

After three years in government, Ferbey was asked to take over the CTFN’s struggling development body, the Carcross Tagish Management Corporation. “My predecessor had made some bad investments and failed to pay taxes for two years,” he said. Ferbey and his assistant cleaned up the books and put together the economic development plan he unveiled at the Whitehorse conference centre. “I don’t miss those negotiations with the feds,” he said. “They are all-consuming and draining, and it’s not clear they will ever adequately fund us. But there’s no turning back now.”

On a bright Saturday morning, Ferbey took me to meet his longtime opponent Harold Gatensby, an accomplished practitioner of restorative justice and healing circles. Gatensby was among the protesters who blockaded the government building last winter, and he might be the CTFN’s most acerbic critic. During the ratification campaign Ferbey headed in 2005, the two regularly jousted at community events. Ferbey prefaced our meeting by telling me, “We have said some horrible things to each other, but these days we are able to talk.”

“I am honest, so this is going to be controversial,” Gatensby said when we arrived. A large man with giant hands, he was one of the residents who, a quarter-century ago, helped tear down Carcross’ old residential school. Gatensby occasionally scowled at my questions as Ferbey sat next to us, girding himself for the drubbing with a deep breath.

Gatensby fiercely laments both Aboriginal self-government and the abuses the community has suffered at the hands of the church and Ottawa. “One hundred years of people calling us savages and trying to save us made us more savage,” he said. “We live in an angry environment. Do you know how many people in this community were sexually abused by priests? The legacy of residential-school abuse and racism left a weak foundation on which to build self-government. Now we govern ourselves, and it’s our own people who are calling us savages—lazy, good for nothing—who will be civilized, some day.” He sneered, and added, “People like Justin are trying to make good people from lazy bums, to turn us into productive citizens.”

Gatensby continued, “Do you want to know what self-government is all about? I’ll draw it for you. Do you have a pen I could borrow?”

The only colour of pen I had was green. “Actually,” Gatensby said, “that’s perfect.” He took a moment to write on a piece of scrap paper, then handed it back. It read: $

“Money is our new God,” he said. “The only thing that interests Ferbey is dollars.”

Ferbey deadpanned, “You mean community dollars.”

Gatensby threw his hands in the air. “Don’t interrupt me, Ferbey. I’m on a roll here.”

Gatensby would not be the first to lament capitalism’s erosion of traditional values. He also thinks the community’s leaders accepted a bad treaty. They should have been given much more land, he said, “but what do you expect when you have kindergarten kids negotiating with university professors?” He told me that the agreement allows the Canadian government to dodge problems caused by its past mistakes. “The federal government needs to take responsibility for the issues caused by its oppression, but instead we are left to be policed by our own people. I don’t see any benefits to self-government. The oppressed have become the oppressors.”

Gatensby’s critique is profound, odd as it is to hear a man denounce the Canadian government’s many crimes and then bemoan its disappearance. Scholars of self-government do agree that the negotiating process heavily favours Ottawa. Devolved responsibilities mean less financial burden for the federal government. Such deals can disappoint communities that expect more autonomy, and the new governments must try to provide similar services with inadequate resources.

Yet self-government is proliferating. In the last ten years, three other communities in the Yukon—the Kluane, Kwanlin Dun and Ta’an Kwach’an—have also become self-governing First Nations. Across Canada, nearly four hundred more communities are at various stages of negotiation with Ottawa, although some continue to reject self-government outright; Inuit in Quebec’s Nunavik region voted against a proposed plan in April.

“People vote for self-government agreements because they are suffering from poverty and colonization, and they are anxious to try anything that might improve their lives materially and psychologically,” Professor Stephanie Irlbacher-Fox of the University of Toronto said. Despite its shortcomings, self-government need only distinguish itself from the dismal Indian Act to gain support. “We know that self-government and the ability to develop culturally specific policies leads to better outcomes,” said Lethbridge’s Belanger. “And one major reason people push for it is to allow greater local economic development.”

As we left Gatensby’s house, Ferbey mentioned his presentation in Whitehorse. “Good luck bringing Disney to Carcross,” Gatensby said. “I can’t wait to have Daffy Duck sing to all the tourists.”

One day, I spotted a yellowed document sitting on Ferbey’s desk. “That’s a twenty-five-year-old plan to develop a downtown in Carcross,” he said. “I found it a couple months ago.” He winced, then laughed. “It’s startlingly similar to my plan today. I’m the latest fool to be trying to do this. But I am through with talking about potential, and this time we need to break ground.” The local narrative of Carcross focuses on its considerable economic potential. Over time, though, it has become a story of waste.

That night, Ferbey got restless and decided we should walk across a nearby frozen lake. We drove to Marsh Lake and, in the inky darkness, set off on foot toward Orion’s Belt. Cottage lights faded behind us. The talk turned to Gatensby, his foil. “Harold understands many of our problems and is good at criticizing, but he has never articulated a compelling alternative. Leaving our fate in the hands of the federal government is not an option,” Ferbey said. “Yes, we need to heal our community and strengthen our identity, but taking responsibility for our own affairs is the way to do that.”

We crunched in silence across the lake for the next thirty minutes, until the opposite shore slowly took shape. We paused on a firm snowdrift. There were no houses or signs of settlement. Waving my arm the length of the beach, I asked Ferbey to whom the land belonged.

“Us,” he said.

See the rest of Issue 41 (Fall 2011).

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