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Tony Penikett: Former Premier of Yukon

Tony Penikett: Former Premier of Yukon

December 14, 2016

Tony Penikett, then premier of Yukon, listens to the prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, during a Constitutional conference in 1987 in Toronto.

“People of the North” is a series of interviews created in partnership with Arctic in Context and Kesserwan Arteau, a legal and consulting firm that works with indigenous communities. Every six weeks, Kesserwan Arteau founders, Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan will publish an interview with leaders, innovators, and community members in an effort to highlight the Arctic’s diversity from the perspectives of those who live there. 

By Jean François Arteau and Karina Kesserwan

Tony Penikett, former premier of Yukon, was involved in devolution of responsibilities from the territorial government to local communities in the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and Yukon. While in office, Penikett fought for a better deal for the territory within the Canadian confederation and for control over the Yukon’s natural resources. Penikett’s government negotiated and signed an umbrella agreement for First Nations land claims, negotiated the first four agreements with individual First Nations, and developed an economic development strategy for the Yukon in consultation with citizens.

Penikett also brought forward the Yukon Human Rights Act, which banned discrimination on the basis of age, race, gender, or sexual orientation. It was only the second such act passed anywhere in Canada.

He has lectured on the history of Aboriginal treaty negotiations at Simon Fraser University, Queen’s University, and the University of Washington. In 2006, Douglas & McIntyre published his book, Reconciliation: First Nations Treaty Making. His most recent articles include “The Arctic Vacuum in Canada’s Foreign Policy” with Terry Fenge in Policy Options, April 2009, and “A Literary Test for Indigenous Governments?” in Northern Public Affairs, June 2012.

Penikett is also a mentor for the Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation’s mentorship program, which connects highly accomplished and engaged Canadians from the public, private, cultural, and non-profit sectors with Trudeau scholars, selected from outstanding PhD students, allowing them to guide the next generation of leaders in the social sciences and humanities.

We had the privilege of meeting with Penikett for our series, People of North.

Kesserwan-Arteau: Tell us about your North.

Tony Penikett: My reference point was Dawson City, in Yukon, where my parents lived in the 60s. My father was the doctor in Dawson City long before Medicare and he was doing house calls. I am sure that his time in the Yukon was his most useful time, even though I must admit I did not have the opportunity to discuss it with him.

And then in the mid 60s it became Clinton Creek, Yukon. I was then an asbestos mine laborer.

A few years later, when I became politically involved, my North turned out to be Alaska, Yukon, and Northwest Territories. But I have to say that for the last 20 years, I have been seeing the North as a collective—not so much as a physical region, but more as a political and a social space.

KA: And this collective political and social space, was it the Arctic?

TP: No, not at first. I had this perspective of the North and not of the Arctic. Maybe because in Canada we have these arbitrary boundaries and we say that the North is the Territories (Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut).

KA: What is your North composed of?

TP: This is a very complicated question, and I have been trying to write a book about this (see Breaking Trail: A Northern Political Journey). There are a lot of romantic or television images about the North that are misleading and quite inaccurate.

To me, the most interesting places in the Arctic are the small Arctic cities where changes were negotiated through land claims agreements, self-government, and devolution of powers. If you think about the role of Tromsø, Nuuk, Iqaluit, Whitehorse, Fairbanks, and Yellowknife, you realize that many of the big changes that happened in the Arctic have been forged by these cities. These changes were made possible partly because of the collaboration between settlers and Aboriginal populations.

KA: What do you think makes a Northerner special?

TP: I think that one of the most amusing things to me is that you hear politicians talk about a Northern identity or character, and then you ask them what that is, and they would not know what to say.

The Northern character has been evolving and forged by big events like the Cold War. Then all of the Arctic became a potential battleground in the nuclear era, particularly in the 70s with the negotiations of the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement, the first modern treaty on land claims involving the government of Canada, the government of Quebec, the Hydro-Quebec utility company, the Cree Nation, and the Inuis.

Arctic cities were places where settlers and indigenous populations sat down and started to talk to each other around land claim tables.

Perhaps one of the most important things that happened in the North was the invention of the Aboriginal government in opposition to the type of corporate government models that the U.S. congress imposed on many indigenous populations. [Aboriginal government is a structure determined by Indigenous populations, representing the values of the community.]

KA: What is the most beautiful thing in your North?

TP: Obviously, the people, but there are also some rare works of art and unknown achievements such as land claim settlements.

The Nunavut Treaty, for instance, covers 250,000 square kilometers of land, which makes the Inuit the largest collective owner of land in the world.

Equally important are the new government arrangements. Among the good things that Northerners gained in the 18th and 19th centuries are ideas related to by-laws, questions of zoning, regional governments, education, and health. Settlers already had to deal with these broader issues in their places of origin, and Indigenous communities integrated their ideas into their own ways of life. What happened following that period is that arrangements with new governments include regions that have quasi-provincial powers. The North invented these new systems of governance.

The rapprochement between Indigenous and settlers have made these arrangements possible. Nobody opposed the land claim agreements. We wanted to work together and to find solutions for the benefit of all. This being said, there are still a lot of implementation challenges.

I would make a case that Aboriginal self-government was invented in the Northern bush.

Tony Penikett: Former Premier of Yukon

Tony with his granddaughter Shiloh.

KA: How does the North make you a different person?

TP: The North has taught me that despite their best efforts, Northerners still don’t get their fair share of resource development. It is usually the case in the North that the developer would get the big share and the community would be left with the environmental and social impacts without receiving much benefit.

KA: Can you name a few successes in your North?

TP: In my time, we brought land claim negotiations to a conclusion and we were much more constructive in dealing with self-government proposals.

I have to say that I was profoundly wrong about one thing: I thought that once Indigenous people achieved some sort of sovereignty over their land, the federal government would not resist for long the rest of the southern populations achieving the same thing.

Something I am particularly proud of—and it was not an easy file—is the Languages Act. Official bilingualism (English and French) was being imposed on us, and right in the middle of the land claim negotiation, the Aboriginal language was totally forgotten. I thought that it was a very bad signal to send. Finally, after difficult negotiations, the government of Canada agreed to spend as much money on public services offered in French as it did on those offered in Aboriginal languages. There are several dialects in the Yukon. We were able to hire Territorial Agents that would deliver services on behalf of Yukon in Aboriginal languages.

We achieved many reforms … and my mistake was to make too many too soon.

KA: What would you like the world to know about your North?

TP: There is a story of achievements such as land claim negotiation tables, self-government negotiations, and legislative modifications, but this story is unfortunately unknown. Fictions or TV programs such as North of the 60, Northern Exposure, and Arctic Air are interesting and fun to watch, but the real story is somewhere else.

KA: What are the biggest misconceptions about the North?

TP: Indigenous people have made a lot a political achievements in Canada and in Alaska, and it is sad to realize that a very few people know about it, even in Canada.

People don’t know that north of the 60th parallel, most people live in cities and not villages. Arctic Indigenous communities are very old and resilient.

KA: Where do you see your North in the future?

TP: What is going to characterize how the North will develop will depend on the “boomer and lifer” debate, between those going North for a short period of time to make as much money as possible those who decide to settle in the North and to spend their life in these regions. My sense is that in Russia, the lifers’ voice is quite muted. You see boomers at work. In some ways Alaska is the same when you hear more from the regional organizations than from Indigenous people.

The housing shortage is very serious, and we have to do some thinking here to resolve this issue.

I also worry a lot about climate change and global warming. I wish that we could find a way to have people walking the walk instead of talking the talk. Turning talk into action is what we have to do.

Interview in September 2012 given to the Carleton University Centre for European Studies. Courtesy of Carleton University.



Jean François Arteau was born in Quebec and has spent over 20 years working with the Inuit, including seven years in the Arctic town of Kuujuaq. 

Karina Kesserwan was born in St. Petersburg, Russia. She has been working with Indigenous peoples for the past 10 years.

[Photos courtesy of Tony Penikett]

This article first appeared on the World Policy Institute website.