The man with the plan
Some people think he’s a touch too ambitious. Others think he’s just damn crazy. One thing’s for sure: Justin Ferbey is not going to quit until he’s utterly transformed the tiny yukon village of Carcross from a sleepy summer getaway to a bustling year-round mecca for outdoor adventurists and espresso-fuelled visitors. here’s how he plans to do it.
By Genesee Keevil | Photo by Daren Gallo
Justin Ferbey is nowhere to be seen. It’s 7 p.m. in Carcross. Inside the southern Yukon community’s rec centre, a shabby decommissioned curling rink with dim lighting, a small group of people – territorial government officials, residents, members of the local Carcross/Tagish First Nation – waits for the man who has called them together.
Biding time, some attendees help themselves to lukewarm coffee from a big metal carafe in the corner; others eye the box of Tim Hortons doughnuts someone brought up from Whitehorse, about an hour’s drive away. Without Ferbey, says one government representative, this presentation is a non-starter. Immediately, the room echoes with the sound of squawking collapsible chairs as people turn to chat with their friends.
When Ferbey walks in about 10 minutes later, he’s decidedly unapologetic. “We all know what this meeting’s about,” he says. “I’ve got copies of the project here. Rather than go over it all with you, I’ll let you read it for about 10 minutes, then take questions.” He adds, “I’m going to have a coffee.”
Four years earlier, Ferbey was speaking in front of U.S. ambassadors at the Lester B. Pearson Building in Washington, D.C. Tonight, he’s about to field questions from the understandably cynical citizens of a community numbering fewer than 300 people. As CEO and sole employee of the Carcross/Tagish Development Corporation, it’s Ferbey’s job to bring economic vision to this tiny village, perched on the shores of Bennett Lake. There’s a seasonal ice cream shop here, offering nine flavours to Holland America tourists travelling from Skagway to Whitehorse. There’s a post office, a visitor centre, and a gas station. But that’s about it.
Ferbey wants to change this. He wants Carcross’ youth to stay in Carcross, which requires jobs. So he’s proposing an ambitious retail village replete with shops, tourism outfits, restaurants, maybe even a motel. That, plus a $40-million eco-resort and two new subdivisions. His ultimate goal? To make sure Carcross can capitalize, year-round, on its popularity with tourists, and to create a sustainable private economy that keeps chugging along during the winter months, when business typically dries up.
Given his attire AT tonight’s meeting – dark suede jacket, dress shirt, jeans – it’d be easy to describe Ferbey as “business casual.” But then there are those ratty runners of his. Coffee in hand, he tips back in his chair, like a teacher waiting for his class to finish its reading assignment. The room rustles through the 12-page handout, complete with economic feasibility studies and draft plans. There’s a quiz at the end, with Ferbey perched on the table, lobbing back answers like a pro.
But then, a quarter of an hour into the Q&A, Ferbey is hit with a comment that, to his surprise, completely stumps him: “We just don’t want it to be another Whiskey Flats.” It’s a woman, three rows back, addressing Ferbey directly.
“I don’t have a TV,” he says, grasping at straws for once. But she’s not referring to some new series. She tries again. “We don’t want it to turn into a moccasin flats,” she says. By now, Ferbey is standing, his dress shirt a little rumpled. He’s still confused.
A First Nations man at the back of the room gives him a hint. “She’s talking about Indian skid row,” says Harold Gattensby, a local elder.
For a second, Ferbey is speechless. He had smoothly prepared answers for queries about condos losing money, or about whether local businesses will be able to make a go of things during the long winter season. But when it comes to concerns about low-income First Nation families with trash in their front yards befouling Main Street, Ferbey is at a loss for words.
Gattensby had seen Ferbey’s type come through Carcross before: slick federal employees with a little First Nation heritage in their blood and a lot of gel in their hair. The only difference this time was, Ferbey was one of their own.
Ferbey, 41, had just figured this out a few years earlier. He was working in Vancouver for Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada (AANDC), as a federal negotiator, when he ran into a Carcross chief at a dinner party. “She heard about my background and figured it out right away,” Ferbey says. It was his Tlingit/Tagish, Swedish and Japanese heritage that gave it away. “It was never a secret I was adopted,” he says. But no one knew Ferbey’s birth family lived less than an hour from Whitehorse, where he grew up. “Now, the only difference is a bunch of the guys I went to high school with have realized we’re cousins,” he says.
Ferbey didn’t stick around after high school. Like many Northern youth, he headed south, to Alberta, where he earned a degree in neurophysiology, wrecked both shoulders playing rugby and spent a summer building fences for a two-bit rodeo rider. Back in the Yukon, looking for more rewarding work, Ferbey applied to group homes, where he hoped to help juvenile delinquents. But he didn’t have enough teaching experience, so he headed to Asia for a year to teach English.
Eight years later, fluent in both Korean and Japanese and sporting black belts in taekwondo and karate, Ferbey woke up one day and realized, “God, I’m just living.” For Ferbey, this wasn’t enough. “When you live abroad like that, you think you’re doing something, I wouldn’t say extraordinary, but you think you’re doing something productive,” he says. “And then one day you realize you’re not doing a lot. I mean I’m teaching and studying, but I didn’t feel I was progressing.”
Within a week, Ferbey headed back west and moved to Vancouver, enrolling in a commerce program with the Institute of Indigenous Government. There, he was cherry-picked by AANDC. When he accepted the negotiator gig, Ferbey had no idea he’d end up being sent to Carcross to help relatives he’d never met ratify a self-government agreement that had already failed once. In 2005, when his First Nation finally signed on the dotted line, Gattensby sauntered up and spit out a challenge that would change the course of Ferbey’s life. “You got your glory,” he said. “Now you’re just going to leave.”
But he didn’t. Instead, Ferbey quit his government job, gave up his Vancouver apartment, said goodbye to his gorgeous Japanese girlfriend and moved home. “I left it all to live in a mouldy house in Carcross,” he says.
More than 70 years ago, Togo Takamatsu fell in love with a Tlingit/Tagish woman whose family hunted and trapped in the mountains around Carcross. The Japanese entrepreneur settled down long enough to start a family, before fleeing into these same mountains to avoid imprisonment in Japanese internment camps.
Ferbey’s great grandfather was never seen again. “But you can still see the remains of his camp,” Ferbey says, although he admits he’s never been up there.
Ferbey doesn’t have a lot of down time, and when he does head up in the mountains around Carcross, he’s usually mapping economic possibilities. Take his latest Sunday snowshoe trip, when he scouted sites for alpine cabins, laying the groundwork for a hut-to-hut hiking network.
This entrepreneurial spirit didn’t make Ferbey the most popular staffer during his early days as project manager for the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. “He got at people and made them do their jobs,” says chief Danny Cresswell. “Like, when he created a carving studio and totems, he’d hand it to our heritage director and say, ‘You’re in charge of this project.’”
From the position of project manager Ferbey climbed to that of senior official, a role that allowed him to restructure the entire government. Working 10-to-12-hour days, Ferbey ate a lot of canned soup and Subway sandwiches before finally handing over the reins and taking off to Hong Kong, where his former Japanese flame was working as a flight attendant. After living alone for years in a tiny village, Ferbey relished the Asian metropolis of more than seven million people. But his respite was short-lived.
Three months into his latest eastern excursion, he got a call from the chief in Carcross. A deal made by the First Nation’s development corporation had gone south; they needed Ferbey to help clean up the mess. “I got the call in Hong Kong on Friday. By Monday, I was back in Carcross.”
Ferbey likens government-building to painting. “Think of it as a canvas,” he says. “I don’t know if I’ve helped paint enough of the picture yet.”
Rick Halliday didn’t mean to start a petition fighting Ferbey’s Carcross tourism development initiative. The longtime Carcross resident simply wrote a letter to the Yukon government outlining his concerns with the proposed retail village. “I showed it to some other residents and it came back with signatures on it,” he says. So far, there are 85. People are particularly worried about the condo part of Ferbey’s plan. Some are plain dubious about the whole project.
Change is not welcome in Carcross. As one resident puts it, “[We’ve] seen the Gold Rush come through, then the military, and two years ago Google was mapping our streets. It’s been nothing but change, change, change. Meanwhile we still have people living here who were born at Mile 32 in a blueberry patch. We’re living with that kind of heritage.”
There have also been a lot of economic development strategies over the years, says Halliday, mentioning a non-existent marina and hotel. “I don’t want to say ‘Nothing you guys have ever done has worked.’ But there’s just been a lot of bad stuff.”
Ferbey knows he’s up against a legacy of unfinished projects. He even discovered a faded economic plan for Carcross from 1986 that looks almost identical to his current retail village proposal. “And people are complaining I’m moving too quick? It couldn’t be any slower.”
To make sure he does it right, Ferbey went back to school last year, earning an online MBA from the University of Liverpool. “Very few communities have been able to make transformational change and raise the socio-economic status of their people,” he says. “And I need to make Carcross cross that line. Every success has one person, who, come hell or high water, made it happen.”
Halliday, who holds down a seasonal job with the White Pass and Yukon Railway hauling summer tourists from Skagway to Carcross, remembers being Ferbey’s age. “Sometimes you step beyond your reach,” he says. “It’s youthful enthusiasm. Justin just needs to take smaller steps. He needs a few more grey hairs.”
Niko Helm is wearing a pressed dress shirt, jeans, runners. He has short spiky black hair, just like Ferbey. The pair is hanging out during an economic brainstorming session at the Carcross Visitor’s Centre. Helm, 19, takes a few minutes to address the crowd about the positive effects of development for local youth.
In 2010, when Ferbey first showed up at Helm’s door, a very different business transaction took place. Helm was a drop-out who was beginning to party too hard when Ferbey offered to start driving him to school. “Justin would faithfully pick Niko up and drive him to Whitehorse every morning and home again every afternoon,” says Niko’s mom, Donna Geddes. Soon Ferbey, who sits on more than 10 boards, found himself repeatedly cancelling volunteer commitments in Whitehorse, just to drive Helm home. When Helm begged off sick one too many times, Ferbey had had enough. “I got angry, because I’m making the effort for him, so he’s got to make the effort for me.” Two years later, Helm graduated with honours.
“I don’t want to say Justin saved my son’s life,” says Geddes. “But I can’t put into words what he’s done for my family.” Time and again she offered Ferbey gas money for the two hours of driving each day, but he wouldn’t take it. “He drives this rickety old car,” she says. “And then he gives other people $20 for gas so they can get around.” When he’s not driving his dirty Toyota, Ferbey is trudging through snowdrifts in ratty runners. “And even then, if he sees someone else with raggedy runners, he’ll give them his last $40 to get new ones,” says Geddes.
Helm landed a job with Parks Canada this summer and has plans to be a helicopter pilot, while Shane Wally, another youth Ferbey started driving to school, dreams of opening a fish taco joint in the new retail village. “Mentors like Justin Ferbey we cannot do without,” says Geddes. “Ferbey could be in Vancouver with a big firm earning lots of money – he has those opportunities. But instead he’s plugging away here making everyone go forward at the same time. After that much education, to see Justin come back and do his part to move our nation forward … I think there should be more Justin Ferbeys in this world.”
“Once the picture is painted enough that it’s not going to wash off in the rain, I’d like to try something else.” Ferbey is sitting in his wall tent, about 45 minutes from Whitehorse on the shore of Marsh Lake. There’s an office chair out here, some bottles of Bailey’s, a couple of couches and a wood stove big enough to heat a house. Ferbey throws some twisted up newspaper in it and a few sticks, but it doesn’t catch. He used to come out here pretty regularly, but these days he doesn’t have the time, despite a paperback lying on the desk entitled “151 Quick Ideas to Manage Time.”
Settling into a black leather armchair on his makeshift porch, Ferbey points across the lake and says, “That’s Carcross/Tagish First Nation settlement land.” It’s also prime oil and gas country, earmarked in the Yukon government’s current energy strategy. “Now, that’s going to be a huge fight,” he says with a grin. But he might not be around to win that one.
He dreams of New York and a job with the United Nations, working on development programs. “I’d like to follow a career that brings me to different places,” he says. But Ferbey’s also aware that this may not satisfy his “locus of control.” It’s a neurophysiology term from his undergrad days, which refers to one’s ability to directly influence events. In Carcross, Ferbey’s able to make things happen. He’s effecting change – and it’s addictive.
“But I’m not a stubborn asshole,” he adds. Over the last few weeks, Ferbey has redesigned the retail village without the second-storey condos, in response to the petition. “I’m not dogmatic,” he says. “There’s never hard lines. What matters is what the market wants. It’s my job to bring some vision.”
Driving back from his tent, with long afternoon shadows stretching across the snow, Ferbey suddenly blurts out his latest idea. “What do you think about a boutique movie theatre in Carcross?” he says, his mind racing. “That’s something that could run all winter.”