New First Nations procurement policy stirring controversy in the Yukon

Dave Gatensby is a Carcross/Tagish First Nation contractor in Whitehorse, Yukon.

Thanks to the territorial government’s new First Nations Procurement Policy (FNPP) which was unveiled late last year, contractors like him will have competitive advantages when bidding for government contracts.

“It’s a good gesture,” Gatensby told APTN News.

procurement policy
Dave Gatensby is a Carcross/Tagish First Nation contractor in Whitehorse, Yukon. He’s going to take advantage of the territory’s new First Nations Procurement Policy which aims to award 15 per cent of all territorial government procurement contracts to Yukon First Nations’ businesses. Photo: Jordan Haselbeck/APTN.

Under the policy, businesses will have advantages when obtaining government tender bids depending on how much of the business is owned by or employs First Nations people. A business will also have advantages if it’s located on First Nations territory outside Whitehorse or if it subcontracts to a First Nations’ business.

Richard Mostyn, the minister in charge of the FNPP, says it aims to award 15 per cent of all territorial government procurement contracts to Yukon First Nations’ businesses.

The FNPP stems from Chapter 22 of the Yukon First Nations Final Agreements which endeavors to draw more Yukon First Nations people into the economy and has been in development for over 25 years.

“We’re making good on a promise we made 27 years ago,” Mostyn says. “It gives a lot of dynamic room and tools in our arsenal to be able to help the local economy keep spending local. We want to improve the lives of all Yukoners, of all businesses, of all communities and this draws the whole thing together.”

Gatensby agrees.

“It’s good to see the government making that gesture and encouraging Indigenous people to become more self-employed. For those reasons I’m for it.”

Gatensby is particularly interested in “unbundling” under the FNPP, which entails dividing a larger contract into smaller projects so additional companies can participate.

“I think there will be more opportunities (for) smaller companies across the board, Indigenous or non-Indigenous, so that will allow more scalability or allow more businesses to grow,” he says.

According to a 2019 Yukon bureau of statistics report, “businesses with First Nation shares in ownership accounted for 7.1% of all Yukon businesses.”

Gatensby says this number should be higher as the total number of First Nations people in the Yukon is 23.3 per cent.

“I think it’s important to ask with that (discrepancy), how come we’re not there already?,” he asks.

Gatensby says Yukon First Nations are still impacted today by the territory’s colonist legacy, like the trauma caused by residential schools and the high number of incarceration rates for Yukon First Nations people. He thinks the policy is a step in the right direction.

“For generations, Indigenous people, with this relationship, have been incredibly disadvantaged and marginalized in the community. (The FNPP) is a gesture as to what this relationship was and it’s a move to try to redefine that relationship.”

Lack of consultation irking local contractors

procurement policy
Clint Teichroeb is the head of the head of the Yukon Contractor’s Association (YCA). He’s concerned the policy was enacted with little consultation from the local business community. Photo: Jordan Haselbeck/APTN.

But not everyone is on board.

“We certainly didn’t recognize the need for this policy until it was announced,” says contactor Clint Teichroeb, who was interviewed before recently becoming president of the Yukon Contractor’s Association (YCA).

Teichroeb says he is supportive of First Nations contractors getting ahead. He notes his own business heavily relies on his connections with First Nations people in the industry.

However, he’s concerned the new policy is forcing contractors like himself to look through “a lens (we) never thought we’d have to look at” when it comes to competing and working with First Nations people.

He says the policy is not sitting well with some contractors who feel it gives First Nations’ businesses unfair advantages and that it was implemented “behind closed doors.”

“Nobody understands the need for the policy, how it was framed, where it’s going to go, how we’re going to measure the progress. Without answering any of those questions, it’s hard for someone like me to have faith in the fact that the policy will be operational.”

The FNPP also came under fire earlier this month during question period in the legislature. Citing a letter signed by the previous president of the YCA which expressed concerns over a lack of consultation with the local business community, official opposition leader Stacey Hassard demanded Mostyn’s resignation from Premier Sandy Silver, who did not offer a comment on the matter.

One local trucking company has even lawyered up over the FNPP.

Last month, JS Sidhu Trucking Ltd. sent a letter to Mostyn asking to delay the policy pending further discussions with local industry and that “failure to do so may result in our decision to launch a constitutional challenge of the policy.”

Teichroeb says he “can’t understand any of it.”

“If there’s a need to improve conditions for certain groups, that doesn’t have to come at the expense of someone else, because we are all neighbors who all live in a northern community.”

“Everybody that’s in the Yukon wants to help build the Yukon and this policy seems to want to deconstruct it.”

But Mostyn disagrees.

He says the policy has been in the works for the last two years and that government to government discussions are typically not made public during the early stages.

“We started having discussions when the policy came into clear focus in June 2020 to say this is what we’re looking at and we presented ideas to (the public),” he says.

He adds that when Grand Chief Peter Johnston of the Council of Yukon First Nations signed off on the FNPP in December 2020 the Yukon government “immediately went out to the implementation, drew businesses and First Nations together and said ‘this is what we’re doing.’”

He also notes there’s been tutorials made available for the public to learn more about the policy.

Mostyn says the government is continuing to meet with representatives of the YCA, stakeholders and First Nations and non-First Nations businesses regarding the FNPP and that “there has been an awful lot of consultation and work done with the three pillars of this policy; government, First Nations and businesses.”

But Teichroeb believes if the FNPP is implemented as is, it leaves non-First Nations contractors like himself wondering if they’re even needed in the territory.

He’s hoping for an eventual meeting with local industry to discuss issues surrounding the FNPP.

“I would like the contracting and business community to initiate meaningful contact with First Nations and First Nations businesses because I believe if we get together without the government in the room we can get it right and it won’t be difficult.”

Policy to go ahead as planned

procurement policy
Richard Mostyn is the minister in charge of the FNPP. Photo: Jordan Haselbeck/APTN.

Gatensby says the FNPP won’t benefit everyone but that it’s important to remember the historical context in which it was created.

“It’s not just part of the past, it shows up in these worlds with these higher incarceration rates, these lower rates in the business community. (First Nations people) been disadvantaged for a long, long time, and we’re living with the results of that and now the gesture is trying to be made to make amends for that.”

While Gatensby agrees with the policy, he’s unsure if it will realistically make an impact on First Nations businesses or if he’ll secure more work from it.

He says supports like a mentorship program that could help young contractors with the bidding process and obtaining the proper documents and licenses would be more practical.

“I think if those supports can get into place with this procurement policy you would see a lot more Indigenous businesses benefiting from it,” he says.

The FNPP will be rolled out in three phases. It is currently in the first phase, which entails working with First Nations’ businesses to properly inform them of the policy as all as the “unbundling” of projects.

The second phase will include items like value driven contracts which will come into effect at the end of April.

More contentious items won’t be implemented until October. Mostyn says government is assessing as it goes and phases may be extended if needed.

A monitor review committee has also been formed to evaluate the policy as it goes forward.

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