Q&A: CYFN Grand Chief Peter Johnston reflects on 2021

·5 min read
Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston at a news conference in Whitehorse on Oct. 4. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)
Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston at a news conference in Whitehorse on Oct. 4. (Jackie Hong/CBC - image credit)

From COVID-19 throughout the territory, to progress in Yukon First Nation language and the tragic discovery of unmarked graves outside residential schools across Canada, 2021 came with heavy trials, but there were some wins too.

Elyn Jones, the host of CBC's Yukon Morning, spoke with Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) Grand Chief Peter Johnston about 2021 and the priorities he says need to be carried into 2022.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How will you remember 2021?

It was quite the year, I must say.... It's been so many great opportunities for CYFN as an organization, a lot of great relationship building between the government and obviously the federal government over the course of the years. I feel we've made significant progress, especially when it comes to … the relationship building, but also getting some of the services and some of the opportunities that we've been advocating and promoting for years. So, it's been very significant when it comes to funding opportunities, and just creating more capacity for First Nation governments, and supporting obviously, where it matters more, especially when it comes to child welfare.

What are some of the things that you're most proud of having accomplished this year?

Well, one of the things we've identified is a lot of gaps and services that are provided to First Nation families and individuals in particular. So we're able to support and develop a relationship with the John Howard society.

We just were very successful in regards to getting money for Yukon First Nations women's shelter. So in that regard, which is a very good opportunity – [and] is also a gap in service here in the Yukon – we now have some very long standing expertise through the John Howard Society to help support us on that initiative. So for me, that is huge, because of the fact that we're able to now culturally reflect on our people in the sense of giving them the appropriate services.

We also built a good relationship around the procurement policy, which is … very important to First Nation communities when it comes to not only procurement of major projects, but also to ensure that Yukon First Nation entrepreneurs and development corporations get the opportunities to participate in the economy.

We've done a lot of work in First Nation language throughout the year, and not only recognizing the long-standing speakers in our community of the First Nation languages. We also recognized 13 individuals in particular from each community and celebrated them in regards to not only their achievements, but also being supportive when it comes to helping support language revitalization, and also ensuring the next generation of speakers are given the opportunities to succeed as well.

What is your reflection on the discovery of the unmarked graves at residential schools?

This is nothing new, and it's been promoted over the last couple of decades to ensure the survivors and people that have been affected by residential school are heard and seen, and the government reflects on the responsibilities that they have to not only to the people that have gone through the system, and also to encourage that we do not end up in these situations. Again, obviously, it's a very, very dark part of our history. And it continued for over 100 years here in Canada, which is, obviously the significant piece of the history there.

For me going forward is: what are we going to do to ensure that we feel that we can move on from this?

So, we can not only educate the general public in regards to the significant impact of this had to Indigenous people across this country, because the legacy still lives on, we can see it in the downtown core of Whitehorse. A lot of those elements, simple elements, such as love and compassion have been lost and let alone our language which has been significantly damaged … but we are on the rebound.

And I really feel, as mentioned before, with a lot of celebration with our language, this is us getting our power back and instilling that community pride and pride in who we are. For me going forward, that is what we need to ensure that we don't forget, but we move on and become stronger because of it.

Maya Lach-Aidelbaum/CBC
Maya Lach-Aidelbaum/CBC

What are the priorities for 2022 and what are the hopes for the new year?

There's a lot of things in the air right now, if you will, and there's a lot of reflection on health and First Nation country. So I am very excited that we're taking a very aggressive approach to how we deal with health. And a lot of it is encompassed around mental health, which has really been a hot topic obviously, since the COVID-19 outbreak and just see how people are coping let alone how people that are living in poverty and living below social standards are not only coping but suffering in this pandemic.

I think for us going forward is really to push the mental health aspect of it. The child welfare has been a really big strong topic over the last couple years. I think really a lot of where we're going now will be health related. Education, obviously, is very important. But you know, without your health and well-being, education is just, you know, it's a mirage at this point.

What are you optimistic about next year?

I just look forward to moving on with the government-to-government relationships. I think it's been very positive with the territorial government and just a lot of things that we've been able to achieve and move forward on particularly when it comes to the Yukon forum. (The forum is a regular meeting between leaders of the Government of Yukon, Yukon First Nations and the Council of Yukon First Nations.)

We have 17 objectives that are constantly being moved and advanced. And I see a lot of the outcomes coming through that process, being very beneficial to the community. The more that we continue on this path is really what gives me the hope and aspiration, that gets me up every morning to continue on this path.

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