The Yukon Liberals’ majority election victory last November may yet prove to be a zeitgeist moment in the territory’s political development. The election marked the end of 14 years of Yukon Party rule and opened the door for improved relations between the territorial government and Yukon First Nations.
The election results raise questions about the future role of Yukon First Nations in the executive management of the territory, the organization of its legislature based upon party politics, and the limits of Indigenous direct participation in public government.
Yukon First Nations’ recent, unprecedented engagement in territorial politics signals the possibility of a rapprochement between Yukon’s two distinct political communities. Yet, the challenge facing the newly elected government is to find a way to reconcile the settler-colonial origins of the Yukon legislature with the new reality of Indigenous self-government.
The Yukon Legislative Assembly, governed through party politics, is a distinct political community, in the sense that it represents an imagined community.1 Although it is the seat of the territorial government, the Yukon legislature is only one of many political communities in Yukon Territory today. With the coming into force of land claim and self-government enabling legislation some 20 years ago, Yukon First Nations became distinct political bodies within their own right, expressive of multiple collective identities and exercising the capacity to both bestow and deny political legitimacy upon others. Yet, the Yukon’s perennial celebration of its settler history — specifically immigration as a result of the Klondike gold-rush and construction of the Alaska Highway — blurs the boundary between public history and propaganda, relegating First Nation communities and their struggles to the margins of history.
Largely absent from Yukon’s public history are discussions about the conflicts which gave rise to Yukon’s two distinct, founding political communities as well as the tensions that led to their reaching the political settlement they did. All this is relevant to the election outcome where the greatest challenge facing the incoming Yukon Liberal government will be as much about educating the Yukon public about where the Yukon has been and how we got here, as finding ways to accommodate Indigenous governments within the executive legislative function.
In 2016, Yukon’s population is almost 38,000, with First Nations, Métis and Inuit Peoples accounting for approximately 21% of the total population. Of these, more than 53% reside in Whitehorse on the traditional territories of the Kwanlin Dun First Nation and Ta’än Kwach’än Council. Yet, many Whitehorse Indigenous residents are also citizens of one of 12 other First Nations communities situated outside of Whitehorse. They are part of a growing number of First Nation residents who work, live and cast their votes in Whitehorse, but call another Yukon community home.
With almost 80% of eligible Yukoners casting ballots, this past general election could be judged as a success based solely upon the election night turnout. First Nation participation also appears to have hit a record high. On election night, 17 out of 19 ridings reported voter turnout had increased by a margin of 10% or greater, compared to the last election in 2011. In nine of these ridings, the margin of difference exceeded 15%, while in another three the percentage increase was greater than 20%.
Since 1974, voter turnout has risen in all but six of 11 Yukon general elections, with voter turnout only ever falling below 73% of eligible voters. By comparison, in Nunavut, 64% of eligible voters turned out during the last election, while in the Northwest Territories, only 43% of voters cast ballots in their 2015 territorial vote.
Credit for the larger turnout in the recent Yukon election is due to improvements in the administration of the election itself. Changes made to the Yukon Elections Act (2016) implemented by the Chief Electoral Officer have made it easier for voters to register and be sworn in at the polls to vote. Also, voter advocacy groups have played a key role in helping to improve the flow of political information and resources to voters, with education campaigns specifically targeting First Nations and youth.
Also, some Yukon First Nations participated in the territorial election for the first time, in supporting roles. They dedicated resources to help to register First Nation voters and to assist their citizens in getting to the polls. In some instances, they also monitored and reported on candidates’ behaviours that violated prescribed election rules. In addition to these efforts, the Council of Yukon First Nations itself endorsed First Nation participation in 2016 election processes and, by hosting their own party leadership debate, contributed to the perception that First Nations had a vital role to play in the outcome of the election itself.
Increased Indigenous participation is significant, not only because Indigenous Peoples historically have been excluded as voters in Yukon, but also because it provides evidence that that outreach efforts and resources are reaching traditionally underrepresented constituencies. As the Yukon News reported, First Nation citizens, like Elder Phil Gatensby, who never before felt the motivation, came out to vote: “This year, something changed in me and I thought, ‘I have to do this.’” In Whitehorse, where over half of Yukon’s Indigenous population resides, Indigenous engagement may signal a renewed sense of civic belonging, potentially contributing to increased voter turnout in future elections (Fournier & Loewen, 2011).
Autonomy movements and the rise of party politics
As Frances Abele has suggested, Northern political development sometimes plays itself out in a contradictory and unexpected fashion. The introduction of party politics into Yukon is no exception; it has not only been critical to the success of the settler rights movement, but to the Indigenous-rights movement, as well. Arguably, the settler rights movement’s successes, in terms of achieving self-government, is not only due to the perceived threat of American occupation during the Klondike gold-rush and Alaska Highway construction, but also the federal government’s zealousness in the wake of both events to deny the possibility of any Indigenous assertion of the same. Similarly, the Indigenous autonomy movement itself would not have taken the form it eventually did, through its entry into party politics, if it were not pressed into a struggle by a settler right movement which sought to deny its right to such a claim.
The Yukon settler rights movement began in postwar Whitehorse with the introduction of Western-Canadian populist thinking into territorial politics. The Whitehorse Men’s Council — which later split into several service club organizations including the Yukon Historical Society and the Whitehorse Board of Trade — played a seminal role in helping territorial politicians to articulate their particular settler rights creed. Local politicians, in turn, capitalized on popular discontent with the Commissioner-in-Council model of government to push their reformist agenda.
In 1957, the settler rights advocates discovered a federal champion in Conservative Member of Parliament, Erik Nielsen. His unanticipated victory in a federal by-election ended 10 years of Liberal postwar power. Together with settler rights advocates, Nielsen pressed for an end to the municipal ward-style, Commissioner-in-Council government and the transfer of its federal executive powers to the locally elected legislature.
Nielsen won election by contesting the legitimacy of voters’ lists and voiding the previous federal election result. Unwittingly, in the process, he discovered that Indians residing “off reserve” in Yukon also had the right to vote. In the run-off by-election, Nielsen persuaded First Nation leadership to help swing the vote in his favour. 2 Not only might this have served to prompt the Diefenbaker government to extend the franchise to all on reserve Indians months later, but Yukon First Nations leaders enjoyed a heightened political status as well as gaining valuable experience in the game of party politics.3
In 1965, Yukon’s Indigenous rights movements entered organized politics with the founding of the Klondike Indian Association, displacing the federal Commissioner’s Yukon Indian Advancement Association. As Yukon and Northern B.C.’s regional voice in Indian national affairs, they timed their entry to coincide with federal hearings on Bill-123, the federal Liberal government’s proposal to strike an Indian Claims Commission, an entity to be fashioned after similar bodies struck by the United States Congress to compensate Indigenous Peoples for unlawful land seizures.
No doubt, the Liberal legislation posed a grave threat to Yukon’s settler rights movement. Nielsen, supported by territorial politicians, the Yukon Commissioner and prominent citizens, had become a vocal advocate for the enfranchisement of Yukon Indians — their removal from the Indian register. Up to this point, Yukon Indians were considered “squatters” on their own land unless it had been specifically set aside for their use. The possibility of a Yukon treaty threatened to undermine the authority of any future settler controlled legislature.
After 1965, Yukon First Nations became active participants in the national Indian movement. The federal Liberal government eventually dropped their plan to strike an Indian Claims Commission. In 1973, however, under a new federal land claims negotiating policy, the Yukon Indian Brotherhood won federal acceptance for their land claim proposal, Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Yukon First Nations and the Yukon legislature pursued parallel but conflicting paths towards autonomy from the federal government. By 1978, party politics in the Yukon legislature had rendered the consensus-style Commissioner-in-Council government unworkable. In 1979, the transfer of executive authority from the Commissioner to the legislature lent legitimacy to the settler rights movement’s opposition to a negotiated land claim settlement. Then, in 1985, after multiple attempts to settle the Yukon land claim had failed, the election of Tony Penikett’s New Democratic Party government served to refocus the settler-rights movement upon its original objectives and agreement was reached.
In 1988 and 1989, a Memorandum on Devolution and a Land Claims Agreement-in-Principle, respectively, were signed and, in 1993, 11 of 14 Yukon First Nations ratified a territory-wide Umbrella Final Agreement. In 1995, Parliament and the Yukon Legislature passed enabling legislation to bring Yukon Land Claims Settlement and First Nations Self-Government Acts into force. In 1998, accepting the recommendations of the Wright Report, the federal and Yukon government signed a devolution protocol accord to facilitate the transfer of federal programs to the Territory.
First Nation-Yukon relations
Since the settlement of land claims and creation of self-governing Yukon First Nations,Yukon First Nations have used their collective voice on land claims boards, commissions and councils to shape the public resource management agenda in a more direct way than would have been possible through the ballot box. By and large, the Yukon and federal governments have respected this arrangement.
In the aftermath of the 2005 territorial election, however, a re-elected Yukon party government found itself in litigation with First Nations over different interpretations of the “spirit and intent” of land claim agreements. At the same time, Yukon First Nations without land claim agreements pressed the government to acknowledge the increased scope of its obligations in the wake of recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions respecting the government’s obligation to consult on development within First Nations traditional territories
Following the Yukon party’s 2011 re-election, several First Nations took the Yukon government to court to challenge its treaty decision-making authority for land use planning. The Yukon Party government then “jumped the shark” by lobbying Ottawa to unilaterally amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act (2003) in what appeared to be a transparent attempt to render any court judgment in Yukon First Nations’ favour a pyrrhic victory. This, in turn, elicited fresh threats of court action from Yukon First Nations and set the table in terms of the issues to be debated during the 2016 election.
In retrospect, these court actions and back-room legislative maneuverings irredeemably poisoned relations between the Yukon party government and First Nations. Speaking to the problem, Grand Chief Peter Johnston observed that over the past 10 years, dealings with the Yukon government have become “treacherous and adversarial.” Looking back, he said, “I don’t think every clear opportunity has been given [by] this government to the Yukon First Nation governments to really execute and implement the agreements that we’ve signed and committed [to].”
In the opening days of the 2016 election campaign Yukon Premier Pasloski did offer a qualified mea culpa for his government’s approach to First Nation relations. In his election call, the Premier distanced himself from the situation, declaring: this election to be “not about the past five years … [but] about the next five years.” For its part, the Yukon New Democrat party made “reconciliation” the centre piece of its election platform, while the Yukon Liberal party chose “The change Yukon needs” as their campaign slogan.
In short, in the run-up to the 2016 Yukon general election, the Yukon party government found itself time-travelling the wrong way down the highway of history. A tit-for-tat approach to land claim implementation disputes had poisoned First Nation-government relations.4 With the Yukon party advertising itself as the “True North” party, suddenly, the old 1960s Indigenous-settler movement rivalry was up and running, once again.
With the burden of this history now bearing down upon the incoming Liberal government, Yukon’s political zeitgeist moment may have arrived — just as it did for the New Democratic Party in the 1980s. Yet, unlike this earlier turning point in contemporary Yukon history, where the competing Indigenous-settler rights movements were unwillingly cast in roles as actors in a larger, national land claims policy drama, they are no longer simply actors, but instead now the authors of their own fortune or fate.
With the election behind it, the focus of public attention has now turned to the how the new Liberal majority government proposes to re-engage Indigenous communities. While recent joint public announcements reflect a need to repair the visible damage to First Nations-government relations, serious consideration also must be given to how to avoid future misadventures. The Yukon government’s Cooperation in Governance Act (2015) provides a venue for discussing the mechanics of treaty implementation, but beyond this, Yukon First Nations leadership have expressed an interest in broadening the scope of the Liberal Cabinet’s consultations with self-governing First Nations.
High up on both Yukon First Nations and the Yukon government’s “to do” list must be measures to staunch the hemorrhaging of tax dollars spent on litigation in defence of the notion of public “government,” as set out in the 1993 Umbrella Final Agreement. In its editorial, “The quest for the future,” published the day of the 2016 election call, The Whitehorse Star observed:
It’s been said rather unkindly that a gin-addled aardvark could turn in a lurching though semi-competent performance at running a territory if given access to $1.4 billion a year in taxpayers’ money.
Arguably, Yukon’s ratification of the 1995 federal Yukon First Nations Land Claims Settlement Act and Yukon First Nations Self-Government Act, must today be read together with recent Supreme Court of Canada’s decisions regarding public government’s obligation to consult. A defensive litigative strategy in a context where Yukon only contributes $156 million a year from its own tax revenues towards public government, and federal taxpayers indirectly pick-up most of the tab for First Nation legal expenses, is short-sighted and doomed to failure.
In 2017, as Yukon celebrates the 75th anniversary of the construction of the Alaska Highway — a rallying point for the settler rights movement — the Liberal party government will face significant head-winds in its search for ways to share its Legislative executive authority with Yukon First Nations. In order to politically justify such reforms it must articulate a course of action that reinforces its own democratic legitimacy as well as that of Yukon First Nations governments. Looking back over the past 50 years, the general public knows little about the social reality of antebellum Yukon or how, during the post-World War II era, antipathy towards people of First Nations ancestry was used to rally residents to the settler autonomy cause. The 2016 Deputy Ministers’ report on the Yukon government’s proposed response to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action falls far short of challenging this ignorance. Accordingly, a public acknowledgement of government’s shortcomings with respect to truth telling in the dissemination of Yukon public history is the logical way to proceed.
The past election revealed that a majority of Yukon’s population is capable of distinguishing between “Yukonania” — the memorializing of a settler rights history — while acknowledging the substantive role First Nations-government relations play in territorial politics today. However, the steady stream of Yukonania, produced for consumption by tourists inevitably finds its way into our public architecture, museum exhibits and school curricula. The cumulative effect is a miasma of settler self-congratulation. Unfortunately, despite the best intentions of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and recent government investments to promote Yukon First Nations as distinct cultures, such efforts have simply served as cover to allow the unspoken moments of a settler society’s culture war against an Indigenous Peoples to remain buried in the archives. Accordingly, today, while Yukon governments celebrate Yukon First Nation culture, the names of prominent public figures who spearheaded efforts to deny and suppress Yukon First Nations’ rights and culture continue to be revered and grace our public buildings. The fulsome history of their political views and dealings remaining obscure and untold.
The necessary corrective for the new Liberal government, therefore, is not only to make renewed investments in its intergovernmental relationship with First Nations, but to embrace “reconciliation” as an overarching vision to guide a “whole-of-government” re-investment in democratic institutional reform. In order to move past the current, unspoken “culture war” with Yukon First Nations, the Liberal government must pursue a revitalized public history of the Territory, one that begins by acknowledging that even its most revered public figures, those who won autonomy and independence for the Yukon legislative assembly, also embraced the darkest visions of such poets as Jack London and Robert Service. ◉
David Roddick is an independent researcher and consultant living in Ottawa.
- Anderson, B. R. O. G. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism. London: Verso.
- Nielsen, Erik, (June 10, 1958). House of Commons. Linked Parliamentary Data Project (Lipad). “A unique experience in that regard was my own at the community of Old Crow in Yukon which had not had the franchise until the by-election in that riding on December 16 last. They did not know what went on here. They did not know what our purpose was. Yet because all Indian people in Yukon are entitled to vote, certainly the people of Old Crow should not have been left out. That is the basis on which we proceeded. While I am sure these people appreciated the privilege of becoming, in a sense, first-class citizens, in common with other Canadians, they still wonder.” Retrieved, December 6, 2016 http://www.lipad.ca/members/record/8c857bdf-3db5-43c3-8ee0-d33d66a80817/2254/
- On March 10, 1960, after a debate marked by virtually unanimous support, the House of Commons finally gave First Nations people the vote without forcing them to give up their status in exchange. A History of the Vote in Canada, Chapter 3, Modernization, 1920–1981. http://www.elections.ca/content.aspx?section=res&dir=his&document=chap3&lang=e). Old Crow Chief Johnny Abel used his community’s support in the 1957 election to elicit a commitment from Erik Nielsen to build a school in the community, a promise which Nielsen lobbied to see fulfilled.
- Newman, D. (2014). Evolution of Yukon’s Aboriginal Law and the Goal of Reconciliation, A 360 Perspective, a paper prepared for the Action Canada Yukon Conference, September, 2014. Newman (2014) writes, “Despite the aims – especially but not exclusively on the government side – to attain legal certainty, the final agreements would now appear to have left more matters unresolved than was first realized. There are ongoing legal disputes about the meaning of particular treaty terms (as is the case in some other parts of the country with modern treaties as well) …However, the meaning of the treaty terms was not as clear as it possibly could have been, and there have been major disputes in the Peel River Watershed that have led to litigation on the of meaning of the treaty terms. Yukon First Nations, in general, may be looking for a larger degree of power and larger stake in ‘co-management’ than the Yukon government may have foreseen.”