Champagne and Aishihik First Nations former chief, Elijah Smith, was instrumental in land claim negotiations and is now part of a 600-person list of Canadians being considered to be featured on the country’s next $5 bill. (Submitted)

Elijah Smith considered for $5 bill

First Nations leader was instrumental in land claims negotiations, reconciliation, supporters say

A Yukon First Nation leader instrumental in land claim negotiations is part of a 600-person list of Canadians being considered to be featured on the country’s next $5 bill.

The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations nominated former Chief Elijah Smith for the honour, stating Smith “is the single most influential Yukon First Nation leader and was at the forefront of reconciliation in Canada.”

CAFN deputy chief Rose Kushniruk stated in a July 20 email that the First Nation put Smith’s name forward after a young man in the community pointed out the call for nominations.

“I was excited to see the opportunity and brought it to council’s attention,” Kushniruk said.

Current CAFN Chief Steve Smith, Elijah Smith’s son, is not directly involved in the nomination, she noted.

Of the 45,000 nominations that were put forward to the Bank of Canada in March, Smith has made it to the shorter list of 600 now being considered by an advisory council.

Those nominated had to fit criteria that they were a Canadian “who has demonstrated outstanding leadership, achievement or distinction in any field benefitting the people of Canada, or in the service of Canada.”

The criteria also specifies that nominees must also have been deceased for at least 25 years and not be a fictional character.

In a statement about the nomination of Elijah Smith, CAFN recalled Smith’s work leading the Yukon delegation to Ottawa in 1973 to deliver the Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow document to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

“This marked the beginning of Yukon First Nations land claims and a turning point for Aboriginal rights across Canada,” CAFN officials said in a statement announcing the nomination. “His vision and ability to unify resulted in the 1993 agreement that remains a model for Indigenous self-government for all of Canada.”

The year 2023 will mark the 50th anniversary of the historic trip to Ottawa. On its website, The Council of Yukon First Nations highlighted the journey made by Smith along with other Yukon chiefs, noting: “Armed only with their determination, courage and the historic document, Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow, they were able to convince the federal government to begin a negotiation process for a modern-day treaty, the first in Canada.”

Kushniruk said many CAFN members have said they’re pleased to see Smith nominated.

Along with his work as a Yukon First Nations leader who helped lay the foundation for modern land claim and self-government agreements, Smith was also a World War II veteran who had given up his Indian status during the war in order to serve the country.

He also served as chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, was the founding president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood in 1969 and founding chairperson of the Council for Yukon Indians (now Council of Yukon First Nations) in 1975.

Krushniruk also pointed out Smith was awarded the Order of Canada in 1976 for his efforts, as was his mother Annie Ned in 1984, and he held an honourary law degree from the University of British Columbia.

“Many people don’t know that Chief Elijah Smith came to politics later in life. He was first elected as the Chief of Kwanlin Dün, then called Whitehorse Indian Band, when he was in his 50s,” Krushniruk said. “When he came home after World War II, he returned to hard times for Indigenous people across Canada and in the Yukon, and wanted to do something better to uphold Yukon First Nations rights.

“He was also a real grass roots person, both in politics and the way he lived his life. He led by example. Elijah brought people who were having a hard time onto the land at his wild horse camp, which was like an early healing camp.”

With the list of potential candidates now at 600, the advisory council is reviewing candidate biographies, with the Bank of Canada conducting focus groups and surveys on it.

Ultimately a shorter list of candidates will be presented later this year (no specific date is set) to the federal Minister of Finance who will make the final decision under the Bank of Canada Act. An announcement will follow.

“Once the new portrait subject has been selected, the bank note design process will begin,” it’s stated on the Bank of Canada website. “All we know right now is that it will be a polymer note with a vertical design. We expect the new $5 note to begin circulating in a few years.”

Officials with the Bank of Canada said it’s anticipated the final selection will be announced in early 2021.

Contact Stephanie Waddell at stephanie.waddell@yukon-news.com

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