Former Kwanlin Dun First Nation Chief Mike Smith speaks at a press conference in Whitehorse on June 7, 2013. Smith passed away on Oct. 18 after a prolonged illness. He was 71. (Ian Stewart/Yukon News)

Yukon First Nations leader Mike Smith dies at 71

‘He was just a kind and gentle individual and he didn’t want anybody to want for anything’

Respected Kwanlin Dün First Nation leader and lawyer Michael Smith, a prominent figure in the push for Yukon First Nations land claims and self-governance, has died.

Smith, who was serving his second term as Yukon Regional Chief for the Assembly of First Nations at the time of his death, passed away at home Oct. 18 after a prolonged illness, his brother Steve Smith confirmed.

He was 71.

Raised in the Lake Labarge area by his grandparents, Smith, the oldest of seven siblings, was a survivor of the residential school system who became active in Indigenous organizations in the 1970s and earned his law degree in 1984. During his decades-long career in politics and law, Smith was a strong advocate for First Nations self-governance, cultural preservation and justice. Along with serving as the past chair for the Council of Yukon Indians, now called the Council of Yukon First Nations, Smith was chief of KDFN for three back-to-back terms from 2003 to 2011 and had been the Yukon Regional Chief for AFN since 2012.

As chief of KDFN, Smith signed the First Nation’s land claim and self-governance agreements in 2005 and also saw to the creation of the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in downtown Whitehorse.

On top of his work, Smith was also a devoted family man, his brother, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations chief Steve Smith, said in an interview Oct. 19.

“As our oldest brother, he was our traditional leader. He was our chief guidance counsellor on a lot of things, (and) being a lawyer, he was our legal advice,” he said in an interview Oct. 19.

“He doted on his children, his grandchildren, his nieces and nephews, and even his sibling and his in-laws. He was just a kind and gentle individual and he didn’t want anybody to want for anything, so he worked really hard to provide for all of his family.”

“He’s 71,” Steve Smith added. “It’s not that old, but it’s also not that young, so he’s had a chance, throughout his career, to touch so many people. It’s like sands on a beach, the amount of people he had come into contact with and became friends.”

Yukon Minister of Tourism and Culture Jeanie Dendys is one of the many who considered Smith both a mentor and friend. She worked as Smith’s director of justice during his last term as KDFN chief and said he gave her his utmost support when she decided to enter territorial politics, attending her nomination meeting and offering encouragement and advice throughout and after the election.

“When I think about his leadership style, I always think, sometimes he was very quiet, but sometimes he was so very fierce and it was always in the humblest way,” Dendys said in an interview Oct. 20. “It was never about power or ego, for Mike, and I always respected that about him… He spent his life working for self-sufficiency and the well-being of his people.”

“He was always willing to give you the advice you were seeking and it came from a true, genuine place,” she added. “He’ll be so deeply missed in the territory and Canada.… He’s always a leader in my eyes and I always respected that humble approach that he had and I strive for that every day in my political career.”

The Yukon Legislative Assembly will pay tribute to Smith at a later date to respect the wishes of his family, Dendys said.

Yukon Supreme Court judge Ron Veale met Smith early on in his career, in 1973. They went on to work together at the law firm Cable, Veale, Cosco, Morris and Smith.

“He was very good but he was never as outspoken as one would think, but he was always the friendliest person I’ve ever encountered,” Veale said in an interview Oct. 19, remembering Smith as a “quiet guy, in some ways,” but also someone with strong resolve and who was very active in promoting Indigenous issues.

KDFN councillor Sean Smith, of no direct relation, said Smith’s passion for empowering First Nations people, belief in the importance of education and strong promotion First Nations languages, cultural practices and traditions were all things he looked up to growing up in the community.

“His demeanor was to be very fact-based, to be transparent, to be direct, to carry himself with integrity and dignity that he learned from his previous elders and leaders within our community, and I’m talking about going back to the Elijah Smith days,” the councillor said. “Passing on that knowledge and carrying on that knowledge was such a critical piece to who he was and the work that he was involved with.”

The councillor also recalled Smith having “a lot of humour.”

“The humour helped to alleviate the heaviness and stuff that came from that residential school era, because he was a first-generation residential school survivor,” the councillor said.

“He had a business side and he had a humoristic side. And when it came to the business, he was one of our strongest leaders, and when it came to the humorous side, the whole table would be laughing.”

The business portions of the KDFN general assembly scheduled for the weekend of Oct. 21 will be postponed, the councillor added, and KDFN will hold a tribute for Smith Friday night.

In a press release, AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde said Smith’s death is “a loss to the AFN, the Yukon territory and First Nations across the country.”

“We have lost a man who always fought for the goals and interests of his people,” Bellegarde said, describing Smith as “a dedicated and diligent member of the AFN Executive Committee who ensured the priorities of Yukon First Nations were represented at the national level” and a “sharp legal mind and a strong advocate for First Nations rights and First Nations jurisdiction.”

“I will miss his contributions, insight and leadership,” Bellegarde said. “My heart goes out to his family and community.”

In an emailed statement, Yukon MP Larry Bagnell said he learned of Smith’s death “with great sadness.”

“It was a pleasure to have worked closely with Chief Smith over the years. I remember how proud he was the day he signed the Kwanlin Dün land claim and self-government agreement, giving KDFN control over their own destiny,” Bagnell said. “While Chief Smith’s leadership will be missed, his legacy will live on through his work, his family and the generations of leaders he mentored.”

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould also expressed her condolences, tweeting that she was “very saddened” to hear about Smith’s death and that she had the “pleasure to work with for many years.”

Smith is survived by his three children, four grandchildren and a number of siblings. The family is taking visitors at Nàkwät’à Kų̀ potlatch house.

Flags at Whitehorse’s City Hall, the Public Safety Building and the Canada Games Centre will fly at half-mast in Smith’s honour.

With files from Ashley Joannou

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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