Mapping The Way Forward

Updated: Apr 6, 2020

The Past and Present of Yukon First Nations Land Claims Agreements.

By Skyler Isaac

First Nations people of the Yukon have always maintained a deep and almost spiritual connection to the land on which they subsist. This attachment to our home terrain has always been with us, and, in all likeliness, always will be.

Generation after generation of our ancestors have lived off the land, filling their days with the only activities they knew; hunting, trapping, fishing, surviving. They had their own spiritual beliefs and traditions. They passed down their skills and knowledge to younger generations, who would then go on to live much the same lives as those who came before. This way of life may seem simplistic or even sad when compared to our modern day existence, but for them it was more than enough. They were content. They were happy.

Then came the settlers. They had departed from their own countries counting on a fresh start in a new world. But they hadn’t expected this vast piece of land to already be occupied. It was a slow process, one which took place over a number of centuries. But the final results of this time-consuming plan are impossible to ignore: Eventually these settlers had completely taken over the country and were now claiming it as their own. First Nations now had no say in how their own ancestral land was used or to whom it was allocated.

It would take until the year 1902 for someone in Yukon to stand up and speak out against this travesty.

Without land Indian people have no soul, no life, no identity, no purpose. Control of our land is necessary for our culture and economic survival. For Yukon Indian people to join in the social and economic life of Yukon, we must have specific rights to lands and natural resources that will be enough for both our present and future needs. – Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow

The person in question was Jim Boss, then Chief of what is now known as Ta’an Kwach’an Council. Boss had become tired of watching the settlers abuse the land of his people and bring foreign diseases to the Territory. He hired a lawyer and drafted a letter to the King of England demanding compensation for the loss of his people, land and game.

Though his request was ultimately denied by the King, he had made history by mobilizing a process whose very existence would inspire the people of the future.

Jim Boss was the first in the Yukon to petition the Crown for Indigenous rights to land and resources, and to suggest compensation for the use of land and resources by settlers. This is, a fight that wouldn’t be picked up until decades later by a man named Elijah Smith.

Elijah Smith and his delegation of prominent Yukon First Nations leaders would take the fight for land and financial compensation directly to Ottawa and then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Together, they presented the document “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow”, which served as the basis for Yukon First Nations’ claim to restore both their right to participate in the management of Yukon’s land and resources and their right to self-determination. Unfortunately, Smith would pass away before his goal could be realized. But all of his dedicated efforts would eventually result in the signing of the Umbrella Final Agreement, a landmark document which called for the return of 8.6 percent of land in the Territory to be returned to the First Nations, and which would become the framework for individual First Nations to negotiate their own final agreements with the Government of Canada.

THE TOPIC OF land claims is an old one. In fact, you’ve probably heard so much on the subject that the mere mention of it may cause your eyes to drift shut and your mind to wander off to more accommodating trains of thought. You may even dismiss the topic entirely, thinking that the land claims process is old news — over and done with, the problem of a generation past.

But that really isn’t the case. Over the decades since the signing of both the Umbrella Final Agreement and eleven separate land claim and self-government settlements in the Yukon, there has been a major issue with the implementation of said settlements. So much so that an entire coalition had to be formed in order to look into the issue.

The Land Claims Agreement Coalition (LCAC) was formed in 2003 in order to make certain that the Government of Canada fulfills its obligations in regards to the treaties, to which it signed across Canada. This coalition is a direct response to the fact that several different independent reviewers have concluded that the Government of Canada has neglected to completely fulfill their obligations under these agreements. This means that modern treaties are ultimately unable to achieve their overall goals and objectives.

A prominent case involved the Na Cho Nyäk Dun, Gwich’in Tribal Council, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation’s long-standing fight to protect the Yukon’s Peel Watershed from development and to ensure the Government of Yukon followed the process laid out in the treaties. These First Nations and conservation organizations came together and took the Yukon Government to court. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in the First Nations favor, even going so far as to state that “Yukon’s conduct was not becoming of the honour of the Crown.”

These actions really aren’t all that surprising given the blatant racism First Nation people have faced both in the past and the present. Many people took a strong stance against the concept of land claims agreements when the discussions first began, decades ago. In a rather unsurprising sort of twist, the vast majority of those who opposed the negotiations were misinformed non-Indigenous folks who were absolutely terrified that the First Nations people would gain too much power within the Territory.

The First Nations people of the Yukon have suffered many tragedies: from the introduction of never before heard of diseases, to the Klondike Gold Rush to the Army’s construction of the Alaska Highway without proper permission from the true caretakers of the land. Yet, self-government has put First Nations back in charge of their own futures, and the financial settlements generated from treaties can be invested for generations to come.

While the successful implementation of land claim treaties and self-government may not be the magic elixir to cure past and present woes of First Nation, they are certainly a step in the right direction. Self-government puts First Nations in charge of their own futures, and the financial settlements generated from treaties can be invested and made to last in order to ensure that future generations have something to fall back on, in case of emergency.

Despite what some may think, the fight is not yet over. The government often fails to implement. While it is hoped the future will be different, history shows the government adhere to the claims they have signed. Additionally of the fourteen First Nations, within the Yukon, eleven have signed agreements. This means that there are three First Nations, within the Territory, who are still without their own land claim agreement and independence.

There are so many cultural traditions, valuable pieces of knowledge and wonderful life lessons that our Elders have passed down to both their children and grandchildren. And like so many others, it would seem that the fight for land claim negotiations and implementation are going to be the latest in a long line of traditions to be passed down from one generation of First Nations to the next.

That’ll be the real legacy of our land claims agreements. The fact that it’s made our people strong, filled them with pride, and given them hope for the future. – Daryn Leas

LAND CLAIM AGREEMENTS are modern day treaties that define the rights of a Yukon First Nation. These rights include ownership and management of the land and its resources based on the First Nations’ use and occupancy of the terrain. Settlement Land assigned to, and chosen by, the First Nation in question falls into one of three categories:

Category A: The First Nation claims ownership of both the surface and subsurface lands, which includes any and all mines and minerals.

Category B: The First Nation claims ownership of the surface land only. Mines, minerals and subsurface rights are under the administration of the Yukon government.

Fee Simple: The First Nation has the same property rights as on private property.

Land claim agreements are accompanied by the signing of a self-government agreement, which asserts and confirms the First Nations’ right to enact legislation and govern their own internal affairs, such as social assistance, education and wildlife management.

Agreements also address the structure and accountability of Aboriginal government, their law-making powers, financial arrangements and their responsibility to provide programs and services to their members.

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