Forty years after Elijah Smith handed a copy of Together Today for our Children Tomorrow to Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, five of the chiefs who stood with him were honoured at the Council of Yukon First Nations Chiefs Summit in Whitehorse on Thursday.
Percy Henry, the former chief of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, spoke alongside Nacho Nyak Dun’s Robert Hager, Selkirk First Nation’s former chief Danny Joe, and Clyde and Roddy Blackjack, both brothers from Little Salmon/Carmacks.
The chiefs were introduced to a standing ovation by moderator Mary Jane Jim, who said she could just barely remember the heady days when Smith and the others were presenting their seminal document to Ottawa.
“I was a young woman when that happened. I did not even comprehend the words ‘land claims.’ I couldn’t even fathom it. But the foresight of our leaders and our elders and my mentors brought me to this point today where I’m able to stand before you as one of the ones that has the privilege and the honour of being in the presence of these wonderful gentlemen. The knowledge and wisdom that is in this room today humbles me,” she said.
The common thread as all five men spoke was the need to re-engage First Nations youth, to give them a voice and be willing to listen to their concerns.
“Today, I’m having trouble with the youth. They start questioning us, asking ‘Where’s our grassroots people?’ What do we tell our kids? That’s a tough question to answer,” said Henry.
“I’m so proud to be here, yet I’m so sad. All the great chiefs are gone,” he said.
Henry spoke about being at the meeting where Smith presented Trudeau with a copy of Together Today for our Children Tomorrow.
“Elijah was first to speak. He said ‘Mr. Prime Minister, we are not here for a hand out. We are here for our land. When Trudeau opened the book … he said that’s the greatest document he’d ever seen,” Henry said.
But not all of Canada’s prime ministers were so open to the idea of land claims and aboriginal rights.
Nacho Nyak Dun’s former chief Robert Hager said he and the other chiefs faced a lot of resistance from Ottawa as they worked their way through the settlement process.
Hager was 28 when he became chief and joined the ranks of those pushing hard for land claims settlements. In 1985 they started negotiations for the Umbrella Final Agreement, even when the government was still uneasy about the idea.
“Prime Minister John Turner walked up to me and said, ‘You’re going to be right down at the bottom for this.’ I said, ‘Thank you, John. Because you know what? I still have my aboriginal rights. That’s what I believe in. I’m not going to give them up, and that’s what I still have today.”
But along with battling Ottawa, Hager also battled his own demons.
“Drugs and alcohol are destroying our kids. I know what it’s like to be an alcoholic. I almost was one myself. When I was 16 I thought I owned the world. I destroyed 10 years of my life,” he said, urging today’s chiefs to help press for treatment and change.
Former Selkirk First Nation Chief Danny Joe had perhaps the most optimistic message, especially for the territory’s young indigenous people.
“Forty years ago, I didn’t feel like this. Today I have a feeling, a really strong feeling, a good feeling seeing all the young people,” he said.
“I have a strong feeling towards our young people. You see many young faces, young chiefs taking over, and saying they have a hard time with the government. They got too many lawyers. Today, you got education. Right on, man. Keep it up. Keep training your young people as much as you can. You’re going to need that in the future,” Joe said.
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