White River First Nation cut off from relatives by Alaska-Yukon border

The Yukon has one of the longest stretches of border with the United States among Canadian jurisdictions. At 1,210 kilometres, it runs from the Alaska panhandle up to the Arctic Ocean.

Remote, rugged, and sparsely populated, the border has no shortage of logistical concerns that were the focus of the Borders and the North Symposium held at Yukon College June 20-21.

After the boundary between Alaska and Canada was drawn, many Indigenous peoples found their territories divided by an international border.

“We never knew what a border line was,” said David Johnny, former chief of White River First Nation, speaking at the symposium. “We’re at the back burner of every issue that’s brought forward. We’re not even talked to when changes are made.”

Johnny is a member of the traditionally Upper Tanana speaking people, whose territory and people are now divided by the border. As such, different laws apply in different parts of their territory and relatives are citizens of different countries.

When the border was first surveyed, many Upper Tanana villages were near the boundary and some dwellings even straddled the line. The people living there were told they would have rights to move around freely and hunt and trap on both sides, Johnny said. However, “that memo didn’t make it to Washington.”

As Johnny was growing up, though, the border wasn’t much of an issue. American customs was located 150 kilometres from the border in Tok, Alaska, and the Canadian post was — and still is — at Beaver Creek, 30 kilometres from where the Alaska Highway crosses the border.

At the time, the area’s Indigenous inhabitants continued to move around and hunt freely in the so called “no man’s land” between the customs posts. Things started to change after the U.S. moved their customs post up to the boundary and border security was tightened.

Today Johnny says people are getting hassled for being in the now 30-kilometre “no man’s land,” even if they haven’t crossed the border. He also says Canadian border guards don’t understand their rights and culture and have even seized goods from community members on their way to a potlatch.

“Our members feel disrespected,” he said. “We get treated better at American customs than in our own country.”

Johnny says that U.S. border guards know who they are and treat them well, whereas with Canadian border guards, arguments are common.

“There’s people at the border who we’ve known for years and then one day they start asking questions about where you live. It makes people angry,” he said.

However, this isn’t even the largest problem Johnny said his community faces. Many people in his community who live in the United States can’t enter Canada due to minor criminal charges from their past.

His sister now has terminal cancer and many of their friends and relatives are barred from coming to see her.

“It’s causing us great trouble and preventing us from exercising our rights that are protected by the Canadian constitution,” he said.

“The Jay Treaty doesn’t really help us. Something new has to be negotiated.”

The Jay Treaty was a 1795 agreement between the United States and Great Britain that permitted Indigenous people to move freely across the newly-established border and “freely carry on trade and commerce with each other.”

Under the terms of the treaty, people born in Canada with at least 50 per cent Indigenous blood are entitled to live and work in the United States.

“They have the broadest set of rights of anyone in the U.S. apart from citizens and cannot be deported,” said U.S. immigration lawyer Greg Boos, who also spoke at the symposium.

“Tribal enrolment and personal affiliation don’t matter. Blood quorum is the only thing that matters,” he said. “It’s the only racial biometric that still exists.”

But Canada never ratified the Jay Treaty after independence, meaning Johnny’s relatives on the other side of the border have no right to reside or work in Canada, even if it’s within their traditional territory.

Johnny said things need to change. He would like to see a provision allowing relatives with minor charges to come to Canada and thinks special ID cards for cross-border First Nations could make things easier. He also says that border guards should be educated more on the culture and rights of Indigenous communities.

“This is our land,” said Johnny, “We have rights based on traditional use and occupancy. We never signed any treaties.”

Contact the Yukon News at editor@yukon-news.com

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