land claims are making history

Three events in Yukon history have contributed more to shaping and defining the course of human events in the territory than any others.

Three events in Yukon history have contributed more to shaping and defining the course of human events in the territory than any others.

They are the Klondike Gold Rush, the construction of the Alaska Highway, and the settlement of land claims.

The last event is still a work in progress.

In the first half of the 20th century, native people in the Yukon had few rights. They could not vote, they could not own property, or attend a public school, yet their traditional lifestyle could no longer be practised as before. It seemed as though every decision made that affected their lives was made by the department of Indian Affairs.

The situation was similar in Alaska, where, despite colonization by two great powers, millions of acres of land across the state had never been officially ceded to the United States government through the treaty process. The discovery of massive oil deposits in Prudhoe Bay in 1968 was the catalyst that moved their treaty process ahead.

The US secretary of the Interior put a freeze on land development, a decision that rapidly accelerated the rate at which the Alaskan land claim issue was resolved, and resulted in the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, which was signed into law by president Richard Nixon in 1971. The act signed over 20 million hectares of land and nearly a billion dollars to a dozen native-owned regional corporations. The success of these corporations varied from region to region.

At about the same time, the issue of land claims was brought to the Canadian government, and in 1973, prime minister Pierre Trudeau initiated the 30-year land claims process. In the Yukon, after having consulted with the Alaskan native corporations, the Council of Yukon Indians opted instead for a settlement that would introduce responsible governments to the native communities in the territory.

After attending a Canada Days meeting at the University of Alaska Fairbanks in February of this year, former Yukon College chancellor Sam Johnston of Teslin invited the faculty and students there to visit the Yukon. The result: Transcending Borders — A public Symposium on the Alaska and Yukon Land Claims, which was held this past weekend at Yukon College in Whitehorse, and at the Teslin Tlingit Heritage Centre in Teslin.

I had the opportunity to attend the sessions offered during the day on Friday November 7.

In the morning, a number of speakers described the process from both a regional and a personal perspective. Ray Jackson, a Champagne and Aishihik First Nation elder spoke of his involvement in the Yukon Land Claim process. At the instigation of Elijah Smith, Jackson was given the assignment of educating the native bands of the Yukon.

Jackson learned of his assignment on Friday afternoon, September 23, 1969. The following Monday morning, his first two staff members reported for duty. In a short time, he had a staff of 20. Among Jackson’s responsibilities was ensuring that all of the chiefs participated, even if it occasionally meant dragging one of them from his trapline in the middle of winter to attend an important meeting.

Doctor Gordon Pullar, president of the Lesnoi Tribe, Kodiak, described the claims process as it developed in Alaska. The introduction of native business corporations came about by an act of Congress after a period of “unequal” negotiation. Beneficiaries became shareholders in tribal corporations, rather than members in tribal or cultural groups.

Two clauses were introduced into the act that could potentially have caused the land claims to self-destruct after a time period of 20 years. Fortunately, through heavy lobbying, and a period during which the negotiators learned to navigate the halls of Congress, this disaster was averted.

Yukoner Mary Jane Jim, now a grandmother, remembers vividly, being a disinterested teenager, who was drawn into the land claims process. Her uncle, Elijah Smith, used to tell her about his dream for the future of aboriginal people in the Yukon. As a young volunteer, she helped operate the Gestetner (remember them?), staple leaflets together and lick stamps. She acknowledged that the volunteer efforts of many other people just like her contributed to the advancement of land claims.

Pat Duncan, the former premier of the Yukon, was the last of the morning speakers. In her capacity both as a Yukoner, and as the government leader, she saw Yukon society as interconnected and inclusive. She paid special attention in her remarks to education. Thirty years ago, she said, she didn’t see First Nation students in her high school. This she noted, has changed. The Yukon curriculum now includes an increasing First Nation content.

The Umbrella Final Agreement, she said, should be required reading in school. If this were the case, we wouldn’t see as much misunderstanding of the role of the land claims as we do today.

The afternoon presenters talked about the impacts that land claims have made both in Alaska and in the Yukon. Miranda Wright, an Alaskan speaker, talked about her dreams, which were fiercely resisted by the established order of her day, to run a business. She overcame many obstacles, eventually becoming the chairperson for the Doyon Corporation, a native corporation, and third-largest employer in central Alaska.

Wright noted that nine of the 10 top businesses in Alaska are now native corporations. Her presentation was peppered with references to employment figures, corporate revenues and shareholder dividends.

David Joe, long-time Yukon First Nation negotiator and lawyer, outlined the various forms of land ownership and use as detailed by land claims agreements. One third of territorial lands are now held as national or territorial parks; another nine per cent are settlement lands as set out in the final agreements. Management of settlement lands rests with the individual First Nations. The remainder is administered by the government of Yukon on behalf of all Yukon citizens.

Both in Alaska and in the Yukon, education for First Nations has transformed over the last 30 years, both in the school and the post-secondary systems. Programs for native people are being offered in universities in Alaska. Enrolment is up and the number of indigenous graduates has increased dramatically, in one generation. First Nation content has been added to school curricula; the Yukon Teacher Education Program program has brought more native teachers into the education system. The advances, to my mind, are significant and substantial.

In their welcoming remarks, Mike Smith of Kwanlin Dun First Nation, Ruth Massey, of Ta’an Kwäch’än First Nation, and grand chief Andy Carvill of the Council of Yukon First Nations all expressed concerns about the success of land claims.

During the sessions that I attended, one very clear point emerged: among the general Yukon population, and specifically within different branches of government, there is a lack of understanding of the obligations agreed to under the Umbrella Final Agreement and the specific Final Agreements. This poses a major obstacle to the success of implementing land claims. Clearly, there is a challenge ahead, that of education about the Final Agreements.

At the same time, I heard much said about the change of affairs of native people in both Yukon and Alaska. Land claims have clearly made a difference. The standard of life is improving; education is more accessible, and more First Nation children are graduating from high school and post-secondary institutions. First Nations have entered the business world with many successes, and they navigate with greater ease through bureaucracy. Through active involvement in politics and various boards, they now have a stronger voice in community affairs.

How all of this translates in future terms is yet to be determined. First Nations have come a long way, but there is still a long way to go. The historical significance of this third major event in Yukon history is still being determined

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse.