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Yukonomist: Forty @ Forty Below: Celebrating a 292-page legal text

If you put the UFA to music, it would be a multi-day Wagnerian opera sung by teams of lawyers.
The attendees at a recent reunion of those who worked on the Umbrella Final Agreement (Derek Crowe/submitted)

Constitutions are kind of like electricity and indoor plumbing. We rely on them so completely as we go about our daily business that it’s difficult to imagine what life would be like without them.

You might even say constitutions are more difficult to build than electricity and indoor plumbing. When you see foreign correspondents reporting on the latest civil conflict in a country with an intractable constitutional breakdown, they’re probably headed for a shower and an electrically chilled drink at the local Hilton as soon as the cameras are off.

We Yukoners are fortunate to have the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA). This really hit me as I observed the recent reunion of 40 First Nation, Yukon and federal negotiators who worked on the deal in the decade leading up to its signing in 1993. They gathered during our recent cold snap — quickly nicknaming themselves the Forty @ Forty Below — to talk about their experiences and reflect on the principles all our governments agreed to in the UFA.

Since the UFA was signed by the Council for Yukon Indians (as it was then known) and the territorial and federal governments, it has been remarkably successful in fundamentally reshaping how we Yukoners govern our part of the world. So successful, in fact, that the Forty were worried that the next generation taking leadership roles in the Yukon now may not fully understand its shared principles.

Today’s Yukon leaders are either too young to have participated in the negotiations, or moved here from provinces or countries that don’t have modern indigenous treaties. If you kicked off your career at a mining company or government agency in Ontario, for example, you can’t help but find the principles of true partnership between First Nations, territorial and federal governments a bit foreign.

One of the challenges to knowing the UFA well is that it is 292 pages long and packed with dense legal text. The US constitution, in contrast, is just 12 pages. Its preamble is so short and snappy that, during the country’s bicentennial, Schoolhouse Rock made an educational cartoon where the words are sung to groovy 1970s guitar music.

If you put the UFA to music, it would be a multi-day Wagnerian opera sung by teams of lawyers.

The reason the Forty gathered was to distill the 292 pages into a short document that regular people could read to understand the UFA’s principles.

Perhaps the most fundamental principle of the UFA is that it is a partnership, not a one-time legal deal. Instead, it “sets out how a unique and dynamic partnership will work now and in the future between First Nations and non-First Nation Yukoners. It is a key part of the Yukon social contract. All Yukoners are affected by it and are partners in how it works - all Yukoners are treaty people.”

You have to get that principle before you can really understand the detailed chapters on things like land, wildlife or economic development.

In the warm atmosphere of the discussions, where participants remembered both the tough negotiating sessions and deep sense of comradeship they developed, several likened the UFA to a marriage. Long after the celebration, it takes hard work by everybody to keep the relationship working.

In this sense, it’s natural that there should be regular disagreements between the participants. As in the federal-provincial relationship, there will be disputes and even court cases on one or two high-profile issues. What’s really important is that leaders on all sides keep working productively on the dozens of other things on government agendas.

It was fitting that the Forty met at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in its landmark location on the Whitehorse waterfront. The UFA was a critical milestone on the road to correcting the historic injustices experienced by Yukon First Nations people. You can’t read Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow, which got the ball rolling in 1973 when Yukon First Nations leaders presented it to federal leaders, without realizing how far we have come.

By coincidence, the Cultural Centre has a new photo exhibit on Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow. It tells the story of Yukon First Nations people from contact to UFA’s signing. You should definitely check it out if you haven’t already.

It was inspiring to hear the Forty talk about how they overcame very real political and negotiating challenges, while building deep relationships of trust that last to this day. Unlike many such documents, which are often cooked up in a hurry by small groups of experts, the UFA is covered by the fingerprints of hundreds of Yukoners over the years it took to negotiate.

It also struck me how creative and bold the UFA is compared to the established Canadian approach embedded in the Indian Act or even the more recent 1971 Alaska settlement. This is why big parts of the UFA have been copied in other parts of Canada where modern treaties have been completed. Some Yukon experts have even been called in to advise on similar negotiations in places as far away as Papua New Guinea.

We owe the people on all sides who negotiated the UFA a big thank you. While no one thinks the deal is perfect — deals on important topics never satisfy everyone on everything — they set future generations of Yukoners up for success with a model that gets all our government agencies working together.

Twenty-five years later, it’s now up to us to keep this model working for today’s issues. And tomorrow’s. Coming challenges, such as climate change or healthcare with an aging population, mean that the next generation of Yukon leaders will need to be as creative and collaborative as the Forty and their colleagues.

Editor’s note: Keith Halliday was one of the local journalists and writers who served as scribes for the sessions. You can download the Forty @ Forty Below document from the Yukon News website where this column is posted.

Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist and received the bronze for Outstanding Columnist in the 2019 Canadian Community Newspaper Awards.