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Cross-Border Collaboration a Highlight of Dunleavy/Pillai Discussion

by | Apr 17, 2024 | Arctic, Featured, Government, News

At the Arctic Encounter Symposium, Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai settles a wager he made with Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy before last month’s Arctic Winter Games.

Alaska Business

Nothing says cross-border relationship building like a little friendly roasting. At a morning session of the Arctic Encounter Symposium on Friday, April 12, Governor Mike Dunleavy welcomed Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai. First, the cross-border counterparts had to settle a friendly wager.

Pillai says his territory’s 2024 Arctic Winter Games team encouraged him to bet Dunleavy that Yukon would win more medals. The loser had to don the gear of the other team. “As you can see, he has a bag with him,” Pillai said at the symposium session.

“I thought he was going to say I had to shave my head,” Dunleavy said, glancing at Pillai’s bald pate.

When the games concluded in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough last month, Alaska had 222 medals to Yukon’s 161. An apparent sweep—until Pillai pointed out thatAlaska has the advantage of 733,400 people compared with Yukon’s 45,600.

Even so, Dunleavy gave Pillai an Alaska beanie and “Team Alaska” parka. Pillai modeled them while the audience snapped pictures. Then the two men switched from competition to cooperation, discussing matters of security, transportation, and energy.

A History as Neighbors

“We have a long relationship with the Canadians. They helped us during WWII; we were allies. Canadians died in Alaska fighting the Japanese out in Kiska and Attu. We helped build a road together through the Yukon in the ‘40s,” Dunleavy said at the symposium. “We think we have a lot of opportunity. Everything from communication, transportation, energy transmission—hooking Alaska up with the rest of North America through the Yukon. Our internet services, our broadband, our security, our icebreakers… We should be big players here in Alaska and not just leave it up to Toronto and Washington to do these things.”

Pillai followed up by mentioning educational agreements since 2012 that allow Alaskans to attend Yukon University for resident rates, and vice versa for Yukon students who attend UAS. Perhaps an opportunity exists for Alaska to help Yukon students train in healthcare fields, an area that is both in demand and at capacity for training in Canada, he said.

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Partnership Possibilities

Pillai said he had, just before the presentation, been on a joint phone call with other Canadian premiers (there are thirteen), and there is an opportunity to tie Yukon and northern Canada with the North American electrical grid—an opportunity that might extend to Alaska as well.

“We think that’s really important in the Yukon. We’ve looked at all the other opportunities… and now what we’re seeing is interest from Alaska and other provinces,” Pillai said.

Dunleavy raised the point that a major area of existing cooperation between Alaska and the Yukon is the Alaska Highway.

“We share costs in that; our share has dropped off in the last few years,” Dunleavy said. “But, as a result of our renewed discussions and the importance of Yukon and Alaska to each other, we’re going to be working with Yukon and making sure that we get more money into that highway, so that highway is in good shape… and it’s maintained. Because in many cases it’s mostly Alaskans who use a big portion of that highway.”

Yukon Premier Ranj Pillai and Governor Mike Dunleavy talk prior to a presentation at the Arctic Encounter Symposium in Anchorage in April.

Alaska Business

Dunleavy said Alaska’s isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic gave him time to think about the benefits of sharing across the border in times of difficulty.

“We want to be not just good neighbors, but we want to put our heads together to stave off and create things,” Dunleavy said. He’d like to see the cooperation go further, including a railroad route along the Alaska Highway corridor.

“Imagine a transportation corridor that goes through Alaska, goes through Yukon, goes down to through BC [British Columbia] and goes through Canada—a designated corridor that could have rail, could have pipelines, could have transmission lines where Alaska is no longer stranded, where the Yukon is no longer stranded in terms of energy systems,” Dunleavy said. “I think it would bode well for surviving successive administrations and elected officials, but it would also bode well for investment… I think it would lower costs for energy, I think it would broaden the possibilities for interconnectivity worldwide. I think we have a real opportunity to demonstrate between our two sovereigns, and bring in other sovereigns… into a northern North America Free Trade Zone.”

Pillai said Canada was pursuing use of the Alaska Highway corridor, but he noted that any work through Canada must be done with all parties at the table.

“It’s really about working with the First Nations governments on the Canada side… to figure out what goes through that economic route,” said Pillai. “As we get ready to look at the North American Free Trade Agreement… I think now is the opportunity for us. Maybe it’s the North that really is the driver, to make sure that as those chapters get reviewed, where do we go when it comes to Indigenous economic reconciliation, not just for the North but for North America? That becomes really the catalyst and the anchor point for us to be able to do things through the northwestern part of North America.”

The Importance of Salmon

The moderator, Andrew G. Smith, who is an intergovernmental relations officer in the Yukon government, asked Pillai about how cultures whose identity revolves in part around salmon are able to maintain ceremonial and cultural events when the focus of that ceremony, the salmon, is no longer present. He referred to the collapse of the salmon run up the Yukon River, resulting in a closed subsistence fishery.

In an emotional moment, Pillai related near-nightly visits he makes to the family’s fish camp, often with his youngest son. He said his two sons, whose grandfather is Tlingit from Southeast Alaska, have gone to fish camp many times but have never fished there.

“It’s really hard for them to be there with their mom and for her to talk about what it used to be like,” he said.

Dunleavy didn’t specifically address salmon, but pointed at past examples that Alaska and Yukon have worked together in the past to solve problems, and pledged to do so.

“A number of these things we’re talking about, I think we have some real opportunities to build upon, where all Alaskans and Yukoners can come together,” Dunleavy said.

“We’re determined to actually hammer out agreements. We’re determined to not just have understandings but joint investments on things like the highway, solving problems like the salmon, and like missing and murdered Indigenous women. Trafficking, for example, going across the border. All of these things are problems and we believe we will be able to effectuate them in a positive way,” Pillai said.

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Making History

May 2024

The track of oil and gas development in Alaska shows the footprints of bold companies and hard-working individuals who shaped the industry in the past and continue to innovate today. The May 2024 issue of Alaska Business explores that history while looking forward to new product development, the energy transition for the fishing fleet, and the ethics of AI tools in business.

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