Teslin takes on the law

A final element of self-government has been realized today by the Teslin Tlingit Council. The First Nation just signed its administration of justice agreement with Ottawa and the Yukon government.

A final element of self-government has been realized today by the Teslin Tlingit Council.

The First Nation just signed its administration of justice agreement with Ottawa and the Yukon government.

It gives it responsibility to administer its own laws on its own land.

“Today is a very significant day for the Teslin Tlingit Council, for us as a nation and a government,” said Chief Peter Johnston at the official signing ceremony today at the heritage centre in Teslin.

“We’ve tried for so long, not only as a self-government but, more importantly, as First Nation people to have our rightful place back on our traditional territory. I think that justice is the foundation that will allow us to have that opportunity, but more importantly, people outside of our nation will be able to understand and share – not only the beauty of it, but, more importantly, the obligation that we have to one another as humans.

“Far too long we’ve been subjected to other levels of jurisdiction that have not reflected our traditional values. Now, today, we have the ability to provide our people with the guidance that they need to help change the rights and wrongs in their lives and, more importantly, to look at their pasts so they are able to create the futures that they want.”

The Teslin Tlingit Council signed its final agreement in 1993 and they are the first in the Yukon and Canada to sign an agreement like this on justice.

Johnston defended Ottawa when responding to the time it has taken to get this far.

“This is something that has never been done before,” he said. “Some of the reluctance maybe, or the fear some of them have is because they are not aware of what we are trying to achieve.”

It’s trying to do more prevention than policing.

The Teslin Tlingit believes if it can work with its own people, with its own laws, on its own land, compliance with the law will be better.

They also see many problems between their culture and the public justice system that results with their people ending up in jail.

This historic agreement will help resolve these problems, say officials. Especially once the council builds its Peacemaker Court, which will hear cases only after attempts at mediation, counselling and conflict-resolution are exhausted.

The hope is to resolve things before the need for police and prison.

“When you take a man out of a community, you’re taking a husband, a father, a brother,” said Johnston. “There are so many ripple effects.”

Plus enforcement is going to be difficult, said Johnston.

Currently the First Nation’s laws focus on the land and wildlife, meanwhile there are only two game guardians for the 1,500 square kilometres of settlement land and 10,000 square kilometres of traditional territory, he said.

All self-governing First Nations have the right to make their own laws in four categories: laws that affect their citizens, no matter where they may be. Laws that affect their lands, no matter who may be on it. Laws that affect their agreements and taxation.

While the Teslin Tlingit Council’s current laws mostly deal with wildlife management, their lawmaking abilities spread to things like adoption, marriage, planning, zoning, residences and natural resources, among others.

This agreement does not give the First Nation jurisdiction over federal or territorial laws, like the Criminal Code and they must comply with national charters and agreements.

The First Nation could enter into an agreement with the territory or federal government to administer the Criminal Code on their land later on, but all sides said this is decades away.

But starting today, new federal money will begin flowing to the First Nation for this initiative.

An initial start-up of $252,000 will be supplemented with $395,000 each year for as long as the agreement is in effect.

Also starting today, Teslin Tlingit laws can be tried in territorial courts, with special attention to the First Nation’s culture and values.

The Peacemaker Court is expected to be up and running within four years.

Indian and Northern Affairs Minister John Duncan and Premier Dennis Fentie both joined Johnston in signing the agreement today.

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at roxannes@yukon-news.com

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