Setting Our Course: Yukon First Nation Self-Government

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Sculpted by time...Canada's Yukon is vast and wild. Yet for ten thousand years, this land nurtured people who called it home. Although the terrain is unchanging, the Yukon's Political landscape is being transformed.

Eric Morris: "There's great pride that we are in a position to determine our own futures, determine what it is that we do for ourselves."

Norma Shorty: "Self government is based upon our principles, our values, our virtues, our songs, our language."

John Burdek: "Now we have a new opportunity of truly becoming self-sufficient, self-determining. And the self government agreements really put those tools in place."


Through the ages, Aboriginal people here created vibrant, stable cultures, with distinctive languages and traditions. But with the arrival of traders from foreign lands, waves of change swept over the Yukon: missionaries, gold miners, politicians - all left their mark. The Government of Canada passed laws asserting legislative jurisdiction over Indians and their lands 100 years later, Yukon First Nations travelled to Ottawa do demand the government start negotiating comprehensive claims.

Teslin Tlingit chief Sam Johnston was part of the delegation.

Sam Johnston: "Our message was back then, to the federal government that we were self-determined people, that our people have always governed themselves. We no longer wanted anybody to run our lives."

In the mid 1990's, after twenty years of hard negotiation, Yukon First Nations started signing land claims and self-government agreements. By 2006, eleven of Yukon's First Nations had closed the book on the Indian Act.

Self-Government Overview

Today, Yukon First Nations are blazing the trail for Aboriginal self-government.

Of more than 600 First Nations across Canada, the majority of self-governing First Nations are in the Yukon Territory. After signing its agreement, a First Nation ceases being an Indian Act band and sets its own course .

Justin Ferbey: "When you start looking at what we're trying to do, and I think that all First Nations are the same, is ‘Where do you want to get to? What's the vision?' And ultimately it's economic independence, it's pride in one's nation, cultural understanding, it's education, it's young people growing up in safe environments - similar to things that all Canadians seek with their own government."


The starting point for self government is developing a constitution. Citizens in each first nation decide what path to follow.

Carcross/Tagish First Nation committee member: "Legislation for us, I think, is key and is paramount. By switching over to a clan system, what I have noticed through this whole transition is that we're empowering more people. That's what the clan system seems to do: it essentially puts the onus on each individual to make a choice."

Justin Ferbey: "That's what ultimately the agreements do provide: real accountability back to the community in a meaningful way.

Chief Mark Wedge: "We asked the community do they want an INAC model of governance as set up in the Indian Act, or do they want a traditional form of governance. And the community said, ‘We want a traditional form of governance; we want to go back to those traditional patterns."

John Burdek: It is community-based government. And these First Nations aren't huge. Some are as small as 200 people. So as a government you should be able to quite finely tune your support mechanisms and engagement with your citizens and moving it forward. So I think it can be much more effective and efficient being that close into the community, that familiar with the community at having those actual decision-making abilities as a self-governing First Nation."

Among the new powers self-governing First Nations take on is the authority to write certain kinds of legislation for themselves.

Chief Mark Wedge: "Canada passed laws under the Indian Act, and what these laws did is prevented us from practising our culture, from owning businesses, from having to go to school – all of these laws had that impact. Got us in trouble. Caused a lot of dysfunction. Self-government agreements provide us to make laws. And we're of the belief that laws got us into trouble, laws can get us out of trouble."

Self government isn't new to First Nations: they have a long history of managing their own affairs. What is dramatically different is sitting at the same table with federal and territorial representatives – negotiating everything from revenue sharing to managing settlement lands.

Dennis Fentie: "Any time you can give First Nations the responsibility on behalf of their citizens for their own affairs, you will see a marked improvement in the overall jurisdiction in terms of political, social, and economic development."

Victoria Fred: "It's been challenging, but we're very fortunate that we have this new relationship. It takes a lot of proactive investment by all parties and we're going to go through a lot of growing pains but I think on the opposite end of the pathway we have an increase of our young people who are recognizing who they are and reacquainting themselves with their culture, taking an interest in being decision makers within their own community. And when you have young people see a future for themselves in a community of which they can design and deliver, that has to be a benefit for Canadian society. So why not go that way?"

Programs and Services

The responsibility for many programs and services is being transferred from the federal and territorial governments to individual First Nations. Each community can decide which programs it wants to deliver, based on its own resources and capacity.

John Burdek: "Under the Indian Act, we were ending up at various levels just delivering their programming. So the Indian Act controls the parameters, the content, what you're able to, and the resources that you're able to put towards some things. But as a self-governing First Nation, you're a government, so you can make your spending decisions along your priorities. You can allocate resources that you build from your own revenue as a self-government."

Today, self-governing First Nations are using money from taxes to construct quality homes – providing jobs, generating revenue, and building a better future. Because every self-governing First Nation decides for itself which programs and services to draw down, resources can be targeted to meet the specific needs of each community. For the Kwanlin Dun, a wellness program at the health centre.

Economic Development

The Vuntut Gwitchin identified economic development as a pressing need, and self government has been a catalyst for new investment. Old Crow lies north of the Arctic Circle, 100 kilometres from the nearest highway. It's one of the oldest First Nation communities in the territory. The Vuntut Gwitchin were among the first to embrace self-government.

Stephen Mills: "It allowed the Vuntut Gwitchin government to take control for its own people. And one of the decisions that were made early on was to take a small amount of the money that flowed as part of the claim and invest in one of the key lifelines to the community, and that is Air North."

Air North provides Old Crow with a vital link to Whitehorse and beyond. The Vuntut Gwitchin Development Corporation bought half the airline when it was a small business with 30 employees. Today, 260 people work for Air North, and the company is thriving.

Stephen Mills: "The success of Air North is not because of compensation money; the success was to use a little bit of that when it was needed, and then through good business decisions, we've been able to make an extremely successful and a world-class airline. We've gone from this hand-to-mouth approach to government before under the Indian Act to one where we run surpluses, where we do long-term planning, where we're proud of how our government functions and we have a lot of highly-trained employees and members of our community.


Self government is also transforming the learning environment. From funding preschools through scholarships for post-secondary education, the door is opening to new ways of learning.

Norma Shorty: "The Carcross/Tagish First Nation decided to develop their own curriculum because we wanted to incorporate First Nation methodologies towards learning and teaching. We wanted to incorporate our elders and resource people in the school. We wanted to have our learning outcomes about our stories, about our clans, about our legends, our values and virtues. So they will still learn to read and write, except that they will do so through our stories and have a sense of pride through our culture. We are not asking government to do this on our behalf. We are wanting to do it because we have self governing agreements, because we want to build capacity at our First Nation level, because we are self-determined."

Teslin Tlingit Council Chief Eric Morris: "When I go into the classroom where our citizens are teaching our young children our language, it's such a beautiful thing to see, to hear our kids talking in our Tlingit language. That's the significance of self government: we are in a position to determine our own futures, determine what it is that we do for ourselves."

Back To The Land

Near Whitehorse, Gary Bailie takes the Kwanlin Koyotes out for a day on the land. Beyond the fun, there's also a larger purpose.

Gary Bailie: "Traditionally the First Nations people made their living from the land. And with the advent of modern society, we're out there a lot less. So this is a way of just maintaining that connection, and hopefully to really maintain an understanding of traditional practices, which includes conservation and taking care of the land itself. Now that we have signed our self government agreements, nobody's punishing us anymore for speaking our language or for going out on the land and hunting and fishing. Therefore, I think that we just need to go and take back what is rightfully ours."

Ultimately, getting back to the land is at the heart of it all.

John Burdek: "Self government wasn't all about jurisdiction and law-making authority. That's a means to an end, you know. We wanted to preserve our ability to be out on the land in perpetuity; to sustain it. And to do that, you need self government control. You need to be in control of the regulations and the legislation so that you can so that you can make those tough decisions and not be relying on other governments."

Together, Yukon First Nations are shaping a governance model that indigenous people elsewhere can learn from. Changing lives, transforming inter-government relationships, and marrying the ancient with the modern, self government is setting the course for a brighter future.

Norma Shorty: "Self government gave me a purpose: it gave me a purpose to learn my language, to learn my culture, to learn about my clan system, to learn my stories, to have a foundation. I know where I come from; I know who I am. That's what self government has done for me personally."

Published under the authority of the
Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern
Development and Federal Interlocutor for
Métis and Non-Status Indians
Ottawa, 2009
TTY only 1-866-553-0554

Catalogue No.R3-104/2009-DVD
ISBN 978-0-662-06945-4

© Minister of Public Works and Government
Services Canada