Paul Birckel holds copies of a land claim agreement signed in 1993. (Courtesy/Champagne and Aishihik First Nations)

Paul Birckel holds copies of a land claim agreement signed in 1993. (Courtesy/Champagne and Aishihik First Nations)

Paul Birckel, leader in Yukon land claim agreements, passes away at 82

Birckel passed away on July 8

Paul Birckel, former Dän Nätthe of Shadhäla yè Äshèyi Kwädän (chief of Champagne and Aishihik First Nations), passed away on July 8 at the age of 82.

In a press release issued July 9, the First Nation said the community is in “deep mourning” following Birckel’s passing.

“Paul embodied dän shawthän – he was a good Southern Tutchone person – the kind of role model we still aspire to be like today,” said Dän Nätthe Äda Kaaxnox (Chief Steve Smith) of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.

Birckel was a five-term CAFN chief, leading the nation for 18 years beginning in 1978, and the founding executive director of the Council of Yukon First Nations. He worked with many others on the long-standing principle that Yukon First Nations people deserve rights and access to their own land.

“We stand on the foundation Paul built. It is his vision for our nation that we carry on,” Smith said.

Birckel was elected chief in 1978 and led his nation in signing one of the first four land claim and self-government agreements in the Yukon. The agreement was signed in 1993 and came into effect in 1995.

In his address at the signing ceremony on May 31, 1993, the Whitehorse Star reported that Birckel honoured the elders who “blazed the land claim trail” in the 1970s, including Elijah Smith, Joe Jacquot and Johnny Johns.

“’They are all gone,’ said the Southern Tutchone chief as emotion broke up his words and interrupted his address. ‘I know we are going to do great things. We are going to do great things because we now have the opportunity to do it ourselves, to do it our way and to make our own mistakes.’” the Star reported.

Under Birckel’s leadership, the Council of Yukon Indians undertook major land claim negotiations with both the federal and territorial governments, as well as undertaking the unprecedented amalgamation of three Aboriginal organizations— the Council for Yukon Indians (CYI), the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians (YANSI), and the Yukon Native Brotherhood (YNB) — to form the Council of Yukon First Nations.

The coming together of status and non-status Indians remains a remarkable achievement and it laid the foundation and the process for the negotiation and achievement of the eleven First Nation agreements and self-government agreements in the Yukon that, according to CAFN, “remains a model for self-determination and self-government for Indigenous people across the globe.”

Birckel was both ­visionary and pragmatic, serving as president of Dakwakada Development Corporation for many years. Chief Smith describes him further, “He was also very economically savvy and was involved with many Yukon First Nations economic development projects.”

Born in 1938, Birckel learned the traditional ways of the land on the shores of Kluane Lake. He attended residential school in Whitehorse. He then went on to work in the oil patches in Alberta and Saskatchewan before he began a 16-year career with the Yukon Electrical Company.

In 1975, he took the helm of the Council of Yukon Indians as its executive director. In 1978, he was first elected chief of the CAFN.

Birckel’s list of accomplishments is long, negotiating:

  • A self-government agreement for CAFN that became a template for future self-government agreements across Canada;
  • A transboundary agreement with B.C. to co-manage Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in 1996;
  • The establishment of the Yukon Native Language Centre, as well as the Champagne-Aishihik Construction Company and Truss Plant;
  • A child welfare agreement with the Yukon government;
  • The purchase of the Yukon Inn, an established hotel in Whitehorse, by five First Nations.

For his contributions to Canada and his own people, he was named a 2000 Indspire Award Laureate. In 2002, he was awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.

Paul was married to Kathy Birckel (Joe) for more than 61 years, and together they had three children (Gary, Gail and Darrel), five grandchildren and several great-grandchildren. He was uncle to many, many more.

Contact Lawrie Crawford at

Yukon First Nations