The Yukon government and a committee of First Nations chiefs reached a significant milestone early this summer. On June 3, 2021, they struck an agreement to establish a First Nations School Board, which will allow First Nations communities in the territory to assume greater authority and control over how children are educated and responsibility for the eventual operation of local schools.

“We are excited to be on the doorstep of creating a Yukon First Nations School Board, which will provide Yukon First Nations with greater control, authority and responsibility over the education of their citizens and support self-determination,” said Dana Tizya-Tramm, chief of Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, one of the signatories to the agreement, and chair of the Chiefs Committee on Education.

The accord was also the latest step in a journey toward Indigenous self-government in Yukon that’s been decades in the making. Yet most Canadians are unfamiliar with it and its ramifications.

Since 1993, 11 of Yukon’s 14 First Nations have had land-claims and self-government agreements, accounting for almost half  of such agreements in Canada. These agreements are constitutionally protected modern treaties that outline First Nations’ rights within their traditional territories. They describe how the federal, territorial and First Nations governments interact with each other and define First Nations ownership of and decision-making powers on settlement land – addressing everything from fish and wildlife to education.

In my recent IRPP reportIndigenous Self-Government in Yukon: Looking for Ways to Pass the Torch –  I argue the agreements have redefined the relationship between First Nations and non-First Nations people, and have fundamentally altered Yukon society. They also serve as a model for Indigenous-state relations throughout Canada, and as a guide for modern-day treaty-making.

A movement begins

Unlike many of their counterparts in southern Canada, First Nations communities in the Yukon had no treaties before 1993. The land settlement and self-government agreements struck in that year define First Nations’ self-government powers, including law-making and taxation. Self-government means that a First Nation no longer falls under the jurisdiction of the federal Indian Act. The territorial government must work side-by-side with First Nations governments on matters such as education reform and land-use planning.

Dawson City, next to the Yukon River.
Dawson City, Yukon, in 1920. Front Street, looking north. Source: Library and Archives Canada.

 The first stirrings of a self-government movement in Yukon emerged during the gold rush of the late 1890s, when tens of thousands of would-be prospectors rushed to the Klondike to seek their fortunes. In 1902, Chief Jim Boss of the Ta’an Kwäch’än First Nation wrote to Ottawa demanding compensation for loss of land and the effects on wildlife by non-Indigenous hunters and gold prospectors. “Tell the King very hard we want something for our Indians, because they take our land and our game,” the letter said.

Although ultimately unsuccessful, he set the stage for a concerted campaign in the 1950s and 1960s to organize First Nations in the territory, which led to the creation in 1968 of the Yukon National Brotherhood and the Yukon Association for Non-Status Indians two years later.

A blueprint for action

Growing political awareness among Yukon First Nations, as well as land claims negotiations underway in neighbouring Alaska, led to the drafting of Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow, a manifesto that laid out the terms identified by Yukon First Nations as necessary for settlement. The document, drafted by Chief Elijah Smith and other Indigenous leaders and citizens, was a statement of grievances and recommendations for “a fair and just” settlement. It outlined demands for greater First Nations inclusion and input about types of Northern development, greater control over education, and other proposals for reform. It was, in essence, a blueprint for action.

Smith and other Indigenous leaders travelled to Ottawa in 1973 to present the manifesto to then-prime minister Pierre Trudeau, marking the start of land claims negotiations. After two decades and several false starts, the landmark Umbrella Final Agreement was signed in Whitehorse on May 29, 1993, by the Council of Yukon Indians (now the Council of Yukon First Nations) and the federal and territorial governments. Over the next 13 years, 11 subagreements were negotiated and signed with First Nations communities.

The subagreements provide for three categories of land settlement, and stipulate possession of surface and subsurface rights. They also created a category of land settlement known as traditional territories, and gave First Nations the right to be involved in the management of the lands, as well as specific rights and benefits such as hunting, fishing, economic development and co-management of parks and cultural heritage sites.

To put the Umbrella Final Agreement into practice, an implementation working group was formed. The group, which still functions today, includes representatives from each of the self-governing First Nations, and the territorial and federal governments.

Self-government agreements are significant

Three Yukon First Nations – the White River First Nation, the Liard First Nation and the Ross River Dena Council – have yet to finalize self-government and land-settlement agreements.

Nevertheless, the 11 self-government agreements negotiated so far are groundbreaking and far-reaching. They protect and enhance Indigenous culture, economy and lifestyle, and have made First Nations equitable partners in the governance of Yukon society.

Tizya-Tramm has noted that self-government has given Yukon First Nations the tools to address climate change. In May 2019, the Vuntut Gwitchin of Old Crow declared a state of emergency over the effects of climate change in the North, a declaration that could lay the groundwork for a climate-change accord between Indigenous nations around the word.

Self-governance also paved the way for the establishment of the First Nations School Board, giving First Nations communities control over one of the pillars of self-government identified in the 1973 manifesto.

But the story of the Yukon treaties and Indigenous self-government in the territory remains largely unknown in Canada. If Canadians are serious about reconciliation, they need to learn more about this important work.

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Gabrielle Slowey is an associate professor in the Department of Politics at York University and director of the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies (also at York). In 2017 she was the inaugural Fulbright Chair in Arctic Studies at Dartmouth College (USA.). She is the author of Navigating Neoliberalism: Self-Determination and the Mikisew Cree First Nation (2008).

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