The border between the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nations is no longer a legal grey-zone.
A new continuous-border agreement between the two was signed at the Council of Yukon First Nations general assembly, held outside Mayo, on Wednesday.
And many believe the deal is the first of many to come.
“We have achieved something with historical implications today,” said Na-Cho Nyak Dun chief Simon Mervyn, after endorsing the agreement.
“(The Yukon and federal governments) wanted a line drawn on a map. We don’t believe in that.”
Under boundaries drawn during Yukon land claims negotiations in the 1970s and 1980s, the traditional territories of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Na-Cho Nyak Dun overlapped.
A rectangular area, starting just west of Stewart Crossing to just east of Dawson and running north, beyond the Arctic Circle, was considered shared territory.
That meant jurisdiction over land, fish and wildlife in the overlap area reverted to the federal government or the Yukon government, said Tr’ondek Hwech’in chief Darren Taylor, at the general assembly.
“It was left in YTG’s hands, or laws of general application. It was basically a no-man’s land,” he said.
If a mining company sought to extract minerals in the area it could meet with more senior governments and bypass the First Nations, he explained.
“The situation had to be resolved,” said Taylor.
“This is just getting them (the Yukon government) out of the picture.”
The boundaries created during negotiations leading to the Umbrella Final Agreement were the result of long political and legal discussions.
But an initial map with continuous borders, which was created by elders in the 1970s, “somehow went missing,” explained Taylor.
The final map, created with input from consultants and lawyers, left overlapping areas everywhere, he said.
“We ended up with what we would call non-traditional boundaries,” said Taylor.
“Governments made up a map with all of these overlaps. We’re just correcting that.”
The new agreement demonstrates to the federal and Yukon governments that they no longer have the authority to arbitrarily define borders for First Nations, he said.
“It’s up to the communities and the elders to define that. If industry does come in, now they have to engage with one of us.
“They can’t leave us out of the process.”
A sharing agreement, also signed at the general assembly, means the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Na-Cho Nyak Dun will divide obligations and revenues if industry does come knocking, added Taylor.
“We would partner with our neighbour, not with someone else.”
The deals have been in the works for about four years, said Mervyn.
“Animals never drew distinctions between borders,” he said. “We believe in sharing everything.”
Sharing territory and resources was always “a non-issue” between the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, but the agreements seek to protect each First Nation in light of new realities, said Taylor.
And more First Nations are interested in the process.
A glance at the traditional territories of the 14 Yukon First Nations shows vast overlaps on almost every border, including the 100-per-cent overlap of the Kluane and the White River First Nations.
The agreement between Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Na-Cho Nyak Dun could serve as a template for future border agreements, said CYFN grand chief Andy Carvill.
“This shows other governments out there that we can work together and we can build a relationship built on respect for each other and respect for the land,” said Carvill on Thursday.
“This is just an indication of better things to come with First Nations governments in the Yukon,” he said.
“There’s going to be more First Nations entering into these agreements and I think it’s definitely a win-win for all First Nations.
“Once we can start to do away with these lines on maps that divide us, we’re really going to start to come together as one people.”