Robert Hager, who served as chief of Nacho Nyak Dun for 30 years overseeing two critical moments in Yukon First Nations history, died last week in his home in Mayo. He was 75 years old.
Hager was one of 12 chiefs who went to Ottawa in 1973 to present the seminal position paper, Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow, to then-prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. The document was accepted in principle for ongoing treaty negotiations, outlining the establishment of the Council for Yukon Indians and launching two decades of intensive land claims talks that granted Yukon First Nations the most comprehensive treaties in Canada.
The council fought ardently for the cultural, economic and social rights of all First Nations, status and non-status, which Hager characterized as a refusal to remain a “white little Indian boy” in an interview for the Voices of Vision: Yukon Aboriginal Self-Government podcast series in 2011.
“The vision of our leaders was to remain self-sufficient,” explained Grand Chief Ruth Massie, leader of the Council of Yukon Indians’ descendent organization. “They put the language in our agreements that speak to citizenship and to not make a difference in status for our citizens. To our leaders there is no difference. They wanted our own autonomy.”
The second landmark moment Hager was a part of was Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement, on which all modern self-government agreements are based. The initial agreement was famously rejected by Hager and his contemporaries in 1984 because of an absence of rights to self-governance, full rights to subsistence hunting and control of lands, among other matters. A decade later, the Nacho Nyak Dun would celebrate the inclusion of these concerns in a new agreement, which fundamentally transformed Yukon First Nations’ relationship with the Department of Indian Affairs, finalizing the grand bargain by extinguishing any outstanding First Nation title to the land.
“I still remember hearing his statement: ‘Goodbye DIA, hello self-government,’” Massie said.
It wasn’t easy. “There was a lot of criticism towards all the funding being spent on negotiations,” Hal Mehaffey, who started working with Hager in 1984 as a Nacho Nyak Dun band manager, explained. “But if they looked at what they got out of it, it’s paid off many times over.”
Hager’s achievements were supported by his collaborative leadership style. “He would take advice from the council, the elders and the staff and listen to it, then make a decision. He didn’t try to push things with people,” Mehaffey said.
His foresight was grounded in culture. As Massie explained, “He knew his land and he lived a traditional life.”
According to Mehaffey, Hager was very respectful of his elders. He ran a fish camp where he often invited friends and colleagues, supported traditional ceremonies on Ethel Lake and was an avid hunter. Hager actively promoted First Nation language programs so they could be offered in schools, using his own language skills to help translate for the elders during negotiations.
“He even ran a group home for children and youth in the community for several years,” Mehaffey added.
“To progress you have one foot in two worlds: the traditional world which is our culture, and then of course where we are today is all about legislation and policy,” Massie explained.
“The leaders today still work to implement the work that he started. We live with the spirit and intent of those leaders, every day,” said Massie, noting that service and financial transfer agreements are constantly being negotiated.
Not long after signing his First Nation’s final agreement in 1993, Hager stepped down as chief.
Born in 1941, Hager witnessed tremendous change in the lives of his peoples, including the right to vote, access bank loans and even attend public school. Mehaffey said Hager was proud to see how much things had improved for his people, “Although things have probably been a little slower than he first imagined. But these things take time.”
Robert Hager’s celebration of life will take place on Saturday, May 28, 2016 at the Mayo Community Hall followed by a potlatch.
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