skagway b.c. … or the alaska boundary dispute redux

In a deft last-minute move at the Alaska boundary tribunal, Canadian diplomats agreed with a First Nations proposal that would see Skagway and Haines as part of Canada, erasing the current border dividing traditional aboriginal territories.

In a deft last-minute move at the Alaska boundary tribunal, Canadian diplomats agreed with a First Nations proposal that would see Skagway and Haines as part of Canada, erasing the current border dividing traditional aboriginal territories.

Under pressure from the media to explain what the United States would do if the tribunal’s decision went Canada’s way, the president said the United States would not back down and reminded everyone how big her army was.

No, you didn’t miss something important on CNN. I’m talking about the re-creation of the Alaska Boundary Tribunal this week in Madame Parker’s Social Studies 10 class at F.H. Collins.

The class role-played the famous 1903 dispute involving the United States on one side, and Britain and Canada on the other. One young woman donned a moustache and some attitude to play President Teddy Roosevelt, while other students played tribunal judges, journalists, First Nation chiefs and even Henry Charles Keith Petty-Fitzmaurice, fifth Marquess of Lansdowne and British foreign secretary.

The MacBride Museum provided the class with historical background material and maps, as well as an aging Yukon history buff (guess who) to facilitate.

The class put on quite a show, all the more impressive because it’s an immersion class and they made their cases to the tribunal in French. Their language skills enabled them to read the original text of the 1825 Treaty of Saint Petersburg between Britain and Russia.

Not that this helped very much, because the treaty is famously vague. At one point, it refers to the border running from mountain top to mountain top but never says exactly which mountains it is talking about.

President Roosevelt and her team read the treaty, examined the facts, and proposed that Alaska include everything up to the outskirts of Whitehorse, Tagish and Dease Lake. The British and Canadians countered with a proposal that put Skagway and Haines in Canada.

The simulation also had a First Nations delegation. This was a deliberate deviation from history, because at the time no one consulted the aboriginal inhabitants of the region. The First Nations team objected to artificial borders dividing their traditional territories and then creatively proposed that the Alaskan Panhandle not exist at all. That way there would be no border along the Coastal Mountains, because Canadian territory would go all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

The Marquess of Lansdowne immediately rose to signal the support of the British Empire for this proposal.

But the judges on the tribunal had other ideas. They split the difference between the proposals and decided on a border putting Skagway and Haines in Alaska, along with a substantial ribbon of land along the coast. U.S. judge Henry Cabot Lodge thought this was a fine idea, and was supported by British judge Lord Alverstone (who sported a fine black judicial robe throughout the proceedings).

As in real life, Lord Alverstone did not have an easy time. She was under constant pressure from all sides, and even received an urgent (and ominously secret) telegram from London just before deliberations began.

The Canadian delegation fumed at the unfairness of it all, but admitted afterwards some concern about what President Roosevelt would have done had Canada won. The Marquess of Lansdowne pointed out the risks the president had run to get her way in Alaska, at one point exclaiming that Roosevelt’s famous “walk softly and carry a big stick” policy seemed more like “walk loudly and carry a big stick.”

Afterwards, students discussed what they had learned from the exercise. One remarked on the high stakes, possibly including war between the U.S. and the British Empire. Another pointed out how an apparently well-organized official process can end up being knocked of course by unexpected events or personal conflicts, which can have big implications for how historical events turn out. There were several comments about First Nations, and how so many decisions were made with minimal consideration about their rights or interests.

Others were interested in the early role of Russia in the region, and in the fact that the original documents were in French – because at the time that language was the global language of diplomacy.

Kudos to Madame Parker and her class for breathing some life into a fascinating period of Yukon history.

Who knows, next time we might even end up with Skagway.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels, including Yukon Secret Agents, which is set during the Alaska Boundary Dispute.