Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow: Mapping the way to Yukon First Nations governance and environmental stewardship

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Editor’s Note: This is the first post in the Yukon Environmental History series organized around the 125th anniversary of the creation of the Yukon Territory. You can read other posts on this series here.

The founding of the Yukon Territory one hundred and twenty-five years ago took place without the consent of Yukon Indigenous peoples, who have lived on the territory’s lands for thousands of years. This year, the Council of Yukon First Nations organized a week of festivities to commemorate a different historical moment key to the territory’s governance: the fiftieth anniversary of the Together Today for our Children Tomorrow report.

Publicity Poster, courtesy of the CYFN, for the week of the 50th anniversary celebrations for Together Today organized by CYFN.

The late 60s and early 1970s were a crucial time of Native American political resurgence. In the United States, the occupation of Alcatraz from 1969 to 1971, as well as the 1973 occupation at Wounded Knee, galvanized the American Indian Movement and a broader Red Power movement. In Canada, the 1969 release of a federal government ‘white paper’ proposing to assimilate Indigenous people into mainstream society without recognizing treaties, or Indigenous sovereignty and inherent rights, incited Indigenous people across the country to take action. In Yukon, the Yukon Native Brotherhood – which would later merge with the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians to form the Council for Yukon Indians, now known as the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN), came together to create Together Today, which put forward an Indigenous vision for the future of the territory.1 Personally delivered by Yukon chiefs to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau in Ottawa on Valentine’s Day, 1973, this position paper kickstarted negotiations that resulted in Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) in 1990 and subsequent individual land claim and self-government agreements with 11 of Yukon’s 14 First Nations.

Yukon First Nations Chiefs in Ottawa in 1973. Left to right, front to back: Peter Lucas; Judy Gingell; Dan Johnson; Johnny Smith; Ray Jackson; Irene Smith; Elijah Smith; Dave Joe; Percy Henry; George Billy; Sam Johnston; Willie Joe; Roy Sam; Jimmy Enoch; Charlie Abel; Reggie Vance; Clifford McLeod; Dixon Lutz; Danny Joe. Photo credit: Yukon Archives. Judy Gingell collection, 98/74.

Flowing from these agreements, Yukon has unique, and uniquely effective, regimes of environmental governance. However, from an Indigenous viewpoint, this environmental stewardship cannot be separated from the greater whole. In the words of Dana Tziya-Tramm, chair of Yukon’s First Nations School Board,

I want our self-government agreements taught in our high schools. The Umbrella Final Agreement is the North Star when it comes to Indigenous relationships with colonial governments. It’s not perfect, but it is probably the best document out there. We are doing a major disservice to Elijah Smith and to all of the work of Indigenous peoples across the Yukon when these documents are left out of the schools. That also goes for non-Indigenous peoples. Our children should leave high school knowing about our corporate structures, our Constitution, our Governance Act, and the documents that are the foundation of our democracy.2

Cover of the Together Today for the Children Tomorrow report.

In January of 2020, original negotiators of the UFA gathered at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse to distill the spirit and key principles of the 292-page agreement into a short plain English statement of about twelve pages, able to be taught in schools and appreciated by the wider populace as a living document.

Why so much emphasis on this history? Why so much effort from the institutions and governments of Yukon First Nations to carry forward these agreements as a “North Star” guiding Yukon First Nations and the relationship in Yukon between First Nations and other Yukoners?

The agreements do not offer definitive solutions for how settler and Indigenous societies share a territory. Rather, what Together Today and the UFA did was set a foundation and an approach for ongoing engagement, both to create the spaces and jurisdictions that are exclusively First Nations, and for the ongoing relationship building and reorientations required to slowly move towards something workable and durable with the institutions of settler governance that First Nations must necessarily live with.

Canadians have little in the way of developed, practical examples of how to remake governance of settler society to better respect Indigenous rights. While the two generations since the Together Today report is not long compared to the seven generations northern Indigenous world views encourage us to keep in mind, it is a stretch of time in which changes in institutions, government relations, and the body politic in Yukon have evolved considerably with respect to Indigenous-settler relations, and with respect to the ability of First Nations in Yukon to exert decision making power not just over settlement lands, but within the entire territory.

Beyond establishing a framework within which individual nations could pursue negotiations over lands and self-governance within their traditional territories, the UFA made sure First Nations had a substantive voice in shared governance. This is very clear when it comes to lands and waters, or ‘environmental governance’. Arising from the terms of the UFA, Yukon First Nations and the territorial government negotiated a separate Yukon Environmental and Social Economic Assessment Act (YESAA), which replaced Canada’s federal environmental impact assessment legislation and process. YESAA, following the vision of First Nations, takes a more holistic approach to environmental assessment. It explicitly foregrounds social and economic impacts on communities, as well as ecosystem impacts on flora and fauna. YESAA also enshrines an assessment process situated locally in Yukon, led by an Executive Committee that shares power: three members are nominated by the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) and two by the territory, with one jointly agreed CYFN-territorial nomination, and one federal government appointment.

While YESSA regulates individual resource/industry projects, First Nations also negotiated for an overall say in land use planning in every part of the territory. Embedded in the terms of the UFA is a framework for years-long, independent, collaborative land use planning processes that must be undertaken for each of Yukon’s seven regions. These processes set overall guidelines and limits to development through the development of regional plans.

But while the UFA set these terms, having them respected and actually taken up in government took decades. It involved enormous effort and sustained and at times difficult engagement between First Nations, settler institutions, and Yukon civil society.

The question of the Peel watershed plan went all the way to the Supreme Court. Beginning in 2004, the Peel was the second Yukon region to go through the multi-year consultative and participatory process mandated by the UFA, involving not only affected First Nations but all sectors of society. This planning process built on thousands of years of First Nations stewardship, and on long term civil society outreach and education spearheaded by the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) and the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS).3 The Peel commission process culminated in a Final Recommended Plan that called for 55% permanent protection and 25% interim protection of the watershed. Taking advantage of the ‘wiggle room’ in the UFA language, which allowed for territorial government to accept, modify, or reject a land use plan, the territorial government rejected a plan eight years in the making in favour of one it produced calling for 80% of the area to be open for industrial development. Three Yukon First Nations – Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Vuntut Gwichin First Nations – along with two environmental organizations, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Yukon Conservation Society took the territorial government to court.4 At the same time, the proponents engaged in the court of public opinion, staging a series of events, including photography and art exhibits, protests, and sitting in en masse to witness the court proceedings.

Citing the UFA’s Chapter 11, in December of 2017 Supreme Court Justice Andromache Karakatsanis ruled that the government’s actions did not respect the spirit of the UFA or the “honour of the Crown.”5 In other words, the intent of the language of the UFA was to provide some safety or leeway for the territorial government’s input right up to the very end of the planning process. But that was within a context of respectful partnership and a consensus-building model, not carte blanche to reject or set aside the entire process: only minor changes were appropriate at such a late stage in the process.

The decades that it took to achieve the Peel plan, which was officially signed into law on August 22nd, 2019, illustrate the slow, difficult, and taxing work of enacting Indigenous governance through joint processes with settler society. More so than in most jurisdictions in Canada, I would argue that Yukon First Nations are shifting the overall political consensus. More and more non-Indigenous people are accepting Indigenous principles, worldviews, and values, as part of what Ranciere might deem the ‘sensible,’ in which Yukon politics takes place. An example of this is the aforementioned First Nations School Board.

Eleven schools have joined the board, which is developing curriculum centered on First Nations’ students’ needs, including not just a different approach to reading, but on-the-land education, experiential learning, and more focus on Indigenous languages and the participation of elders.6 The board’s focus is Indigenous students, and the majority of schools that voted to join the board are small rural, Indigenous majority schools. However, two schools in Whitehorse also voted to join the board, indicating that parents in urban, majority non-First Nations schools in Yukon understand the value of Indigenous and land-based education. Spreading this approach even more widely, the board’s new curriculum will be shared with the Department of Education for use by other school boards.

This is not to say that the First Nations School Board is a panacea for the complex problems First Nations face in the wake of residential schools and ongoing struggles with colonial governance systems. Part of the impetus for the Board finally to become a reality in 2022 sprung from two auditor general reports, a decade apart, documenting that Yukon schools had failed First Nations students ‘dismally,’ in the words of one APTN report.7 Just the same, having a well-resourced, multi-school First Nations education system, compatible with the Yukon/BC curriculum but catering specifically to First Nations needs and worldviews and run by First Nations themselves, is an important step forward, one that will enable more First Nations youth and their respective nations to increase their self-determination.

Not all Yukon First Nations have agreed to the UFA or to its approach to engagement with settler society – Kaska Dene leadership, for example, find the language of extinguishment in modern land claims treaties incompatible with maintaining what they consider as inherent rights, including jurisdiction over their entire traditional territories.

There is much more to be said about individual land claims and self-government agreements, and the ways that nations have drawn on their powers for everything from purchasing a key stake in Yukon’s thriving airline, Air North, to building appropriate housing (a very significant concern in small northern communities), to initiating an innovative solar project to reduce dependence on diesel, to creating cultural centers and supporting the revival of Indigenous languages and cultural practices and heritage. There is more to contextualize in terms of the larger history of the exceptional alliance building Yukon First Nations have done with governments nationally, internationally, and in the circumpolar north, whether through the International Yukon River Inter-Tribal Council, the role of the Gwich’in Council International and Arctic Athapascan Council as permanent participants on the Arctic Council, or through the international Porcupine Caribou Management Agreement and its associated co-management boards. This short blog post is not the place to do so. But I hope it has sparked your curiosity to look in more detail at Yukon and the legacy of Together Today, which has changed the face of Yukon so much in only fifty years. I highly recommend checking out the extensive resources available at Mapping the Way for more information on this legacy and the journeys of Yukon First Nations towards sovereignty and self-government.


[1] Mapping the Way – “a non-partisan public education initiative created and run by the 11 self-governing Yukon First Nations, the Council of Yukon First Nations and the governments of Yukon and Canada” – is an excellent multimedia resource telling the story of Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow in more detail.
[2] Yukon Research Center, “Turn Your Universe into a University,” September 2019.
[3] Please see Paul Mangat’s 2018 piece in the Whitehorse Star. The involvement of Yukon conservation organizations in the Peel Watershed preceded the formal planning process by many years Juri Peepre, eulogized in the linked Globe and Mail article, worked with great dedication and foresight to build relationships with First Nations in the watershed and to raise awareness regionally and nationally about its importance. For example, he organized the Three Rivers Project which took artists and First Nations on a canoe expedition through the Peel watershed, resulting in a multimedia exhibit and the book Three Rivers: The Yukon’s Great Boreal Wilderness.
[4] The Gwich’in Tribal Council, based in the Northwest Territories, was also an intervenor in the case.
[5] “Supreme Court rules in favour of Yukon First Nations in Peel watershed dispute,” CBC News, Dec 1, 2017.
[6] This is of a total of 34 elementary and secondary schools and learning centres listed by the Yukon Government.
[7] Sarah Connors, “‘A lot of hopes and dreams’: First Nations school board now a reality in Yukon,” APTN National News. September 9, 2022.
Feature Image: Haines, Alaska. Photo by author.
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Shirley Roburn

Shirley Roburn is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication and Media Studies at York University in Toronto, Canada. She researches the public storytelling strategies used by Indigenous communities and their civil society allies in order to reframe controversies over energy infrastructure development in terms of issues of land and water, food, and cultural sovereignty. More recently, her work has focused on low-carbon media and research practices, and on on-line digital journalism startups use of data visualizations in digital storytelling that foregrounds social inequities related to health and environment.

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