For 30,000 years, longer than any other human inhabitants of the Americas, the Yukon’s Indians lived a traditional, seminomadic lifestyle—hunting, trapping and fishing. And ever since the arrival in the 1830s of Hudson’s Bay Company explorer Robert Campbell, Indians have helped and sometimes saved the white man. They formed the cornerstone of the fur trade, guided the gold-mad stampeders to the Klondike fields and led the surveyors who plotted the Alaska Highway. What they have never done is surrender their land.
“We never signed any treaties,” says Criss-Tina Henry, 24. “The Yukon is still all ours.” Her view is shared by the leaders of the Yukon’s Indian organizations who, recognizing the Yukon’s potential riches, are fighting for land claims settlements. But Henry's main worry is the plight of her people and she wants to counsel Indian students. "The young kids need help. Indians have to stick together... I never had anyone to turn to.” She fears an economic boom in the Yukon will only increase the disparity between white and Indian. Infant
mortality rates among the Yukon’s 6,000 Indians are already double the Canadian average, life expectancy is shorter and the standard of living is markedly lower. These conditions are aggravated by rampant alcoholism, 70-per-cent unemployment and housing that is at best squalid. Until recently, an open sewer from a Whitehorse suburb ran right through the Indian village that is literally on the other side of the tracks. Although a few Indians continue to live a traditional lifestyle, most have moved (or have been moved) to urbanized areas.
Some have adapted well but a highly visible minority wander the streets as dirty, drunken echoes of humanity. For them a land settlement will make no difference. Unable to cope with “the white man's ways," they are finished. It is the next generation that still has a chance.
Although all federal parties are committed to the concept of aboriginal rights,and successive governments in Whitehorse
and Ottawa have affirmed the need for a "just and comprehensive" settlement, little progress has been made since the completion in 1973 of the Indians’ original working document, Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow. "An agreement before the snow flies” has become a bitter joke among Indian negotiators. At least some of the delay can be traced to internal turmoil in the Council for Yukon Indians (CYI), an umbrella group which represents both status and non-status Indians in land claims negotiations. Palace coups have ousted CYI leaders twice, but the federal government has changed its negotiators even more frequently: there have been five Indian affairs and northern development ministers since 1973, further disrupting the talks.
Like his predecessors, the current minister, Jake Epp, calls land claims a "high priority.” However, few expect an agreement in principle within the six-month time frame set in late October by Epp, who has appointed his parliamentary secretary, Dr. Robert Holmes, as the latest negotiator. Holmes, a former Indian and northern affairs critic, was miffed when he was not given the portfolio in the Joe Clark cabinet and, although Epp describes him as being "respected by all sides,” CYI Chairman Harry Allen says he would have preferred a “professional negotiator." Knowing that
his people are faced with the harsh reality of becoming an ever smaller minority in their own land and that they are almost totally unrepresented in the Yukon’s political and economic hierarchy, Allen wants a settlement that includes "constitutional guarantees as well as land and money.” He was angered by Epp’s recent initiatives to grant more power to the Yukon government which, despite repeated protestations to the contrary, is hardly receptive to Indian aspirations. Officially, it supports a “speedy and just settlement,” but there is a qualifier: "One which is of benefit to all Yukoners, both white and Indian.”
Most contentious is the question of constitutional guarantees. The CYI is demanding that individual Indian band councils be granted both a status comparable to that of municipal governments and administrative control over areas of crucial interest to Indian groups—game, education and some social services. The Yukon government argues that blatant gerrymandering in 1978 to create Indian majorities in four of the 16 territorial ridings is enough. Relations are strained, the two groups don't speak to each other and, Allen says, “Until our land claims are settled we don't feel we fall under any area of territorial jurisdiction.”
Nevertheless, Allen says he is optimistic that agreement can be reached within the
time frame imposed by Epp. If that proves impossible, he wants postponement of the pipeline and provincehood. Although less militant than the Déné Nation in the Northwest Territories, which in 1975 proposed the creation of a separate Indian political entity, the CYI regards court action as a last resort to block pipeline construction if no settlement is reached.
White attitudes are changing, too. Five years ago, there was scarcely a ripple of outrage when a red-neck farmer vowed to "blast the first Indian who comes on my land.” Now, most whites accept land claims as inevitable and agree that without the muscle provided by a settlement the Yukon’s Indians will be steamrollered by the increasing pace of development. A share of resource revenues and an infusion of capital as part of the settlement will allow Indians to set up their own corporations and participate in the coming boom, as happened in 1971 in Alaska. Although it has been argued that millions of dollars have already been spent in efforts to improve the Indians' lot, with a disappointing lack of success, and Indian leaders no longer regard a land claims settlement as a panacea, it may be a starting point. One thing is certain: even with a settlement, the future for the Yukon’s Indians is bleakly uncertain. Without a settlement, it is unthinkably grim. Paul Koring
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