Yukon First Nations held up as global role models

Indigenous people across the world share many common challenges and hardships, but they can all look to the Yukon as an example of a place where First Nation people and governments are doing it right, if slowly.

Indigenous people across the world share many common challenges and hardships, but they can all look to the Yukon as an example of a place where First Nation people and governments are doing it right, if slowly.

That’s the hopeful message professor Ken Coates gave in his keynote address to Whitehorse’s fifth annual First Nation Governance and Capacity Development Conference.

Coates spoke passionately about the work that has been done and continues in the Yukon, providing a world-class example of how to help indigenous people pull themselves out of hardship and become leaders in their communities and countries.

Coates is an expert on aboriginal issues, and was raised in the Yukon. At the conference, he recalled attending F.H. Collins high school in a time when First Nations people had almost nothing.

In 1973 he was an admittedly awkward student in a Grade 11 law class when a group of guest speakers came to talk about the now-famous document, Together Today for our Children Tomorrow.

“I remember the shock and anger after that document was released. I remember going to church in January after it was released. And all these proper little Anglican people all gathered together talking about this thing, this thing called Together Today for our Children Tomorrow, and how absurd it was and how these radicals had taken over,” Coates said.

“They blamed it all on white guys, by the way. They said it had to be hippies. You could explain away a lot of things by blaming it on hippies,” he joked.

That document, penned in large part by Elijah Smith, became the basis for the Yukon’s comprehensive land claims. It set the stage for not only what became the Umbrella Final Agreement, but what is now the Council of Yukon First Nations, and self-government agreements that exist for 11 of the territory’s 14 First Nations.

Forty years later, Yukon First Nations have accomplished more than anyone ever thought they would, Coates said.

“Nobody in 1973 would have believed that we would accomplish in the Yukon what you have done. Nobody. I can categorically tell you that not even Elijah Smith would have said, ‘You will have an umbrella agreement, you will have self-government agreements, that you would have won the duty to consult, that you would have won a string of court battles, that you have the constitutional protection of your aboriginal and treaty rights. Nobody in 1973 would have thought it was even remotely possible.”

Coates spoke eloquently about the struggles of other indigenous people across the world trying to assert their rights and heal from the ravages of colonial oppression. He knows, because he’s visited many of these countries himself while researching his numerous books on the subject.

From Russia to Norway to Australia, indigenous people have followed roughly the same trajectory, he said. They were colonized, marginalized and in many cases the colonizers tried to force them to assimilate. But it didn’t work, indigenous people struggled onwards, and some, as in the Yukon, are becoming global leaders in the way they innovate solutions.

Coates held up New Zealand as an example. That country set up a tribunal to address broken historical treaties with the indigenous Maoris and is now working towards being entirely bicultural.

Scandinavia is another good example, Coates said.

“They had interference with resource developments, protests over reindeer herding. They even built a tent city in part of the Norwegian Parliament and they forced changes in government policy. In Norway, they even have a parallel advisory parliament to the government of the country.”

In Canada, the successes have been many. In 1970 there were only 200 aboriginal students at Canadian universities. Today there are more than 30,000.

To date, there have been 58 consecutive aboriginal victories on court cases involving resource rights. There have been six since December. What has happened, Coates said, is that the courts have, one by one, recognized the aboriginal right to have an influence over resource development.

“These court battles haven’t been won with aboriginal laws. They’ve all been won with Canadian laws.

“All they’ve been doing is getting Canadians to pay attention to their own legal requirements.”

But as much as has changed in the past 40 years, Coates said there is still much work to be done.

“Never forget the problems,” Coates warned. “Nobody for one second who spends any time dealing with First Nations affairs thinks everything is fine and the problems are all solved. The thing that’s missing is the aboriginal success story.”

In the Yukon and across Canada, one of the strongest tools aboriginal Canadians have at their disposal is the duty for governments to consult and accommodate,” he said.

“Duty to consult and accommodate is the ticket, there is absolutely no question. I don’t think that many First Nations governments across Canada have the capacity to capitalize on it, but I can tell you corporations are ready for it, the federal government is ready for it, and the territorial government is ready for it. We should put a huge amount of emphasis in that area.”

Ultimately, success for First Nations people will come when the entire country can recognize indigenous peoples’ connection to the land, and the wisdom they can offer from it, said Coates.

“Why do indigenous peoples across the globe face many of the same problems everywhere? The answer is very simple. Indigenous peoples are bonded to the land.

Their spirit, their strength, their culture, their integrity, their passion and their joy of life comes from a particular piece of territory. They are part of the land. They are part of the water. That is not a value system that many other people share,” Coates said.

Contact Jesse Winter at


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