It’s a tradition for Yukon First Nations to hold annual general assemblies, where citizens gather to discuss governmental affairs, set priorities for the future, and socialize.
But the COVID-19 pandemic means things are different this year.
“We are encouraging most of our citizens to join virtually, connecting either online or by phone and connecting remotely,” said Steve Smith, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations near Haines Junction.
The change means this weekend’s general assembly for Champagne and Aishihik will be mostly business, without the social and cultural aspects of past general assemblies.
Normally, citizens could partake in fishing derbies, horseshoe tournaments, and enjoy catered food after a long day of meetings.
Smith says the saddest thing for him this year is that children will not be playing outside while the two days of meetings are in session. He says that’s one of the fond memories he had as a child.
But Smith says the change is necessary this year to help keep children safe, and because the First Nation is taking the COVID-19 pandemic seriously.
Blair Hogan, president of Gúnta Business Consulting, is busy these days working with First Nations governments to set up virtual meetings for their general assemblies.
“The approach is a barrier-free participation in First Nation democracy,” Hogan said. “So the way we see it is, COVID[-19] has created barriers.”
For now, virtual meetings are the best way for First Nations governments to reach out to citizens, he said.
“It was actually pretty surprising at how much uptake we had, from just word of mouth,” Hogan said. “I think we had three First Nations almost right out of the gate that were working with us to secure contracts.”
Chief Smith and 30 on-site delegates will be livestreaming the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations general assembly from a tent in Haines Junction. A second delegation will be streaming from Whitehorse.
“We are also going to ensure that everyone is social distancing, We have temperature stations, we have mask-wearing that will be required,” said Smith.
Many Champagne and Aishihik citizens live outside of Haines Junction and travel restrictions mean some of them can’t attend the general assembly in person. Smith says there could be more citizens participating virtually than face-to-face.
“It’s going to be interesting to see how much more attendance we have with regard to those citizens who normally just can’t by virtue of where they live,” said Smith.