The last week in Whitehorse reminded newcomers to the Yukon that Elijah Smith is not just a building.
Elijah Smith served in World War II as a soldier. Smith was a chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, the first chair of the Council for Yukon Indians, the first president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood and a driving force for Yukon First Nations to regain land and establish constitutional rights to self-determination.
Dave Joe, a distinguished lawyer and one of the principal architects of the Umbrella Final Agreement, was the last speaker in the series of talks commemorating the 50 year anniversary of when Elijah Smith and a delegation of Yukon chiefs went to Ottawa with the document Together Today for our Children Tomorrow. The document was sub-titled, A Statement of Grievances and an Approach to Settlement by the Yukon Indian People. It included an assessment of the past and a blueprint for the future.
Joe began his talk recalling to the audience how Smith, during the war, was treated to all the rights of a normal Canadian citizen.
“And when he came back to Canada, he did not have the right to vote, couldn’t go in the bars, could not own land, could not hire a lawyer for the purpose of advancing a land claim, could not talk about advancing a land claim,” Joe said.
To add insult, all veterans were allowed to apply for a piece of land when they returned home, except First Nations. Smith applied for land near Takhini anyway, but he was denied.
Joe thinks it was the blatant difference between the two ways of being valued, as a soldier during wartime and as a First Nations person later, that had a profound influence on Smith.
“The comparison of the degree of equality, that he was treated with, and the degree of acceptance when he was in the army, and the contrast to when he came home.”
Joe mused, “Being denied those basic values, essentially ticked him off, I think.”
Joe described how Smith would later say, “’I got drunk for about 20 years, and decided to sober up because it was not helping me, it wasn’t helping us.’”
Joe continued, “Once he achieved that degree of sobriety, he had this vision and this quest, and he adopted that. And he remained committed to that vision, and that quest, and began to initiate a process to remove all the barriers that were in place, through the laws of Canada.”
As many speakers said during the course of the week, the road to get out from under the discriminatory power of the Indian Act was long.
Margaret Commodore, a long-time activist for non-status Indians, articulated the unfairness of “status” versus “non-status” First Nations and its consequences. She said that a white woman could marry a First Nations man and even run for chief, but if a First Nations woman married a white man, she and her children lost their status.
The list of reasons why First Nations people came to be disenfranchised is long. In the document Together Today for our Children Tomorrow, it lists some of the reasons First Nations people could choose to disenfranchise themselves: so they could have their children not attend residential schools and go to public schools; so they could buy and hold title to a piece of land; so they could drink in a public place; or, so they could hold a business license. The document called them “bribes to cut down on the number of [First Nations] Indians on the list.”
“Many of these [disenfranchised] people are Indian leaders and any Settlement of our Grievances will have to include them,” reads the document. This made it important that the unity of purpose between status and non-status peoples was aligned.
Shirley Adamson recounted being subject to racial slurs. She said as non-status, they were called “road allowance Indians” because they didn’t belong within the population or belong within an Indian Act band.
“But you know, those individuals that were part of the established bands under the Indian Act didn’t have it a lot better than we did,” she said.
She said they lived in substandard homes provided to them by Canada, and suffered all kinds of poor living conditions.
“We were all the same regardless of whether we were status or otherwise.”
Adamson also noted that there was a growing undercurrent among the elders at the time. They were tired of seeing their children split up between who was status and who was non-status.
“And more painful for them, was to see their children suffering in residential and mission schools,” she said.
“And then on top of that was the painful Sixties Scoop,” when social workers pulled families apart.
Yukon elders found themselves with no say in anything that needed to be done.
“We didn’t have a vote for the municipal elections. We had no vote, no territorial elections, and we had no vote in the federal elections until the early 60s,” Adamson recounted as she traced back the roots of discontent.
Adamson dedicated her career to advancing, negotiating and implementing agreements, Peter Johnston said in his introduction to Adamson. Johnston is the Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) and host of the five-day speaker series which ran each weekday of the event. The sessions can be viewed on CYFN’s Facebook page.
The stories told last week in Whitehorse heralded the slow dismantling of a made-in-Canada caste system. Speaker after speaker described the beginnings at many kitchen tables throughout the territory, with small children listening in, as their parents, grandparents and friends strategized ways to have their loss of land, diminished way of life, and concerns under the Indian Act addressed by the government powers-that-be.
It was a lot of work. Commodore recalled the difficulties of the non-status peoples (organized as the Yukon Association of Non-status Indians) working with the families and the leaders of the Yukon Native Brotherhood to be a part of the process that was taking place with the delivery of Together Today for our Children Tomorrow to Ottawa.
Commodore couldn’t exactly recall how long it was afterwards that she was in a meeting when it happened.
“The Yukon Native Brotherhood said, ‘Yes, you are part of us, you belong to us’,” she said.
“And that made me cry. The tears came down on my face.”
This was not the end of political activism for Commodore, however. She went on to sit in the Yukon Legislature and on the bench, as a Justice of the Peace. She opened her talk saying she had just celebrated her 90th birthday, appearing spry and energized as she spoke.
Joe attributed unity as the key reason for the success of the movement that laid the foundation for future generations of First Nations people in the territory. Unity, culture and language are key he said, but “coupled with constitutional tools, I have every confidence opportunities will be there for children.”
He also noted that no other First Nation negotiations since have achieved the level of constitutional security as contained in the Yukon agreements.
Adamson said the significance of what has happened in the Yukon is underappreciated.
“The racism is covert now,” she said.
“But it still exists. And I think it’s because people don’t know who we are, and have never given the opportunity to learn about us.”
She laments that people do not realize how the First Nation final agreements shaped the territorial government, and accelerated the devolution of federal powers to the Yukon.
“It’s a shame that it’s not in the schools,” she said.
“These are constitutional documents, at least with the exception of the self-government agreements. When you’re studying about Canada, it should be a part of it.”
Adamson believes people need to know what is being accomplished here.
“In the North, we have changed the face of Canada — the political landscape of Canada — without firing one shot.”
Contact Lawrie Crawford at email@example.com