Thousands of years before the first European explorer set foot on this continent, there were a great many cultures thriving in the North. Yet, when the descendants of these explorers came North years later seeking riches, they did so with little respect for the first peoples of this land. Decisions were made a world away until indigenous peoples, frustrated by decades of broken promises, demanded a say in the future. As Canada enters its 150th year of existence, we look back at seven moments in the history of the North where the balance of power shifted.
New interest, new border
The run began in late spring with chinook salmon, followed by chum in summer. At the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike rivers, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in would set up camp to fish, smoke and preserve their catch.
But when word of a gold discovery got out, prospectors rushed there and bought up these seasonal cabins. “The thing is, there were different cultural feelings about what you got when you bought a place,” says Yukon historian Sally Robinson. “Europeans think when you buy a place you get the land underneath it. That would be a totally alien thought to the First Nations.”
Towns up and down the river, populated with panners looking to strike it rich, soon emptied into Dawson City. It was 1896. In the next two years, Dawson grew from a ramshackle campsite to a city of 40,000. By 1898, the police force numbered 50 with an additional 200 military men sent in.
Lawlessness in Skagway, with gangsters like Soapy Smith extorting prospective stampeders, was surely something to guard against. But the increased law enforcement presence wasn’t solely devoted to quashing crime—these men were also sent by Canada as a show of strength to legitimize its claim to the area.
Before the gold rush, one of the only federal representatives there was William Ogilvie, the land surveyor who charted the Yukon-Alaska border. “As soon as it became obvious that there was going to be a lot of money there and the federal government could benefit from royalties and custom duties, they needed bureaucrats to collect it,” says Robinson. A commissioner and gold commissioner were appointed as government liaisons during the gold rush.
Fortunes were being made from the riverbeds in the Yukon, which was then still a part of the Northwest Territories and the latter’s basic mineral resource legislation no longer made sense. “It wasn’t just trapping—it was mining, gold production. There were different kinds of rules and regulations that needed to be in place,” says Robinson. “It became a distinct area in terms of jurisdiction, practically speaking.” As a result, the Yukon was cleaved off as a territory of its own in 1898.
The Klondike was all staked out by the early 1900s and though there was still money to be made off existing claims, new gold discoveries at Nome, Alaska lured many away. The population of Dawson City dropped below 5,000 by 1902 and big mining corporations moved in with dredging machines and new equipment. “The industrial side of it didn’t really pan out the way the federal government thought it would,” says Robinson. “It didn’t turn into a hard rock mine. There wasn’t any motherlode, any vein. They’re still looking for it.”
The industry struggled after the First World War and the federal government’s interest in the Yukon dwindled. The government cut subsidies to the territory, seeing little need to develop infrastructure for a limited population, says Robinson. The territorial council that advised the commissioner—made up of regional representatives—went from 10 members to three in 1920. (It would remain at three until 1952; the following year Whitehorse replaced Dawson as the Yukon capital.)
The Klondike gold rush brought new technology and infrastructure, but it also displaced many of the Yukon’s first peoples. Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Isaac saw white stampeders prospering at the expense of the land and livelihood of his people.
Besides the obvious environmental impacts of river dredging, Chief Isaac feared the outside influences—and associated vices like drinking and gambling—would forever alter the lifestyle of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. According to one legend, he entrusted the songs and dances of his people with their Alaskan neighbours, before they were lost forever. Under Chief Isaac’s leadership, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in relocated their main camp to Moosehide, six kilometres outside of Dawson City. “It was an idea that if they didn’t find their own place, they’d just be absorbed,” says Robinson. –Elaine Anselmi
It wasn’t until the late 1880s that Canada took an interest in the North. And that was only after the discovery of oil in the Athabasca basin and along the Mackenzie Valley. Though Canada had come to acquire what now comprises much of the NWT, Nunavut and the Yukon in 1870, it felt little obligation to the people living there because it had not signed treaty with them. And it had no intention to. The land, it was assumed, had little agricultural value, which made it unlikely for settlement.
But then news of great quantities of oil up North trickled south, and the government began drafting plans to open that land up for development. The federal government, based on British precedent, recognized the title of the land’s original inhabitants and had used treaties to extinguish that title across the country. These treaties also set out peaceful terms between First Nations and incoming white settlers. In return, the government promised annual remuneration ($5, with some hunting and food supplies), land in some cases, and protection of First Nations rights to hunt, trap and fish.
Oil exploration stalled and treaty plans were put on hold. But when the Klondike gold rush happened and hundreds of white settlers hoping to find a way there from the east began making mineral discoveries around Great Slave Lake, the government was finally compelled to come North. Its main purpose was to have Dene sign away their title to the land—as is clear through internal government correspondence extensively documented in Rene Fumoleau’s history of Treaties 8 and 11, As Long As This Land Shall Last.
Treaty 8 territory encompasses northern portions of the western provinces and the South Slave region of the Northwest Territories. For two summers—1899 and 1900—a commission travelled this country for treaty negotiations.
But these negotiations were decidedly one-sided. Dene lived in the bush and many could not read or write. Talks often occurred through interpreters and Dene put faith in the commission’s church representatives. A Roman Catholic missionary accompanying the treaty party noted in his journal that accepting treaty was “a lesser evil”—the government would get the land no matter what.
In Fort Chipewyan, no copy of the treaty was left after its signing and when a copy arrived later, according to a translator, it contained a condition whereby signatories had agreed to obey any future hunting regulations—a clause that no one would have agreed to. In Fort Resolution, talks centred on restrictions to bison hunting, with little to no discussion about land ownership. In fact, the federal government’s position here was incompatible with the Dene across the table—for the latter, the land was not something that could be owned.
The commission ventured no farther north than the south shore of Great Slave Lake, as Canada, once again, thought the value of the land beyond was not equal to the expense to travel it to make treaty.
But in 1920, oil began flowing near Fort Norman. Now the government had reason to enter into another round of treaty-making. As future Dene leader James Wah-Shee would later put it: “The treaty was signed when it was discovered that our land was more valuable than our friendship.”
Treaty 11 went down the Mackenzie, beginning in June 1921 at Fort Providence. Again, hunting rights dominated talks. In Fort Rae (Behchokǫ̀ ), Chief Monfwi pressed the treaty commission to draw out a boundary within which his people’s rights would never be infringed upon. This was done, but a copy of that promise never made it to
Ottawa. “We made an agreement, but land was never mentioned,” recalled Jimmy Bruneau, who was present at those treaty talks and was Monfwi’s successor as chief. “A person must be crazy to accept five dollars to give up his land.”
In the years that followed, more white trappers came and pressures on fur-bearing animals spurred Canada to put game restrictions in place, breaking that important promise. Some Dene did not know why they were receiving fines for hunting on their land—something people had done for thousands of years.
“The prosperity and prestige of Canada in the North was gained at the expense of the Indian people,” writes Fumoleau. “Their chiefs were summoned from anonymity for a brief moment of political involvement and importance only to be relegated to oblivion after their usefulness was over.”
It wasn’t until 1973—following a land caveat registered by the Indian Brotherhood and months of oral testimonies from witnesses to Treaty 11—that Dene rights to their lands were recognized through an NWT Supreme Court decision by Justice William Morrow. It noted that signatories were led to believe these were goodwill and peace treaties with nothing to do about land cessation.
This decision would open the door to land claim and self-government agreements and negotiations that continue today. –Herb Mathisen
Home at last
A DC-7, loaded mainly with young bureaucrats, left Ottawa on the morning of September 17, 1967. It would stop in Churchill, Manitoba before continuing on to Yellowknife. For many on board, their new workplace would soon be a condemned two-story school—an obvious step down from their previous digs in Centennial Towers, in the heart of downtown Ottawa. But the mood among passengers approached giddiness.
Jake Ootes was 25 at the time. “There definitely was a tremendous amount of excitement on board because, as you can appreciate… [we] were aware that this is a very historic event,” he says. The following morning, the passengers on this plane would make Yellowknife the newest Canadian capital.
“There was very little government in those days, to be honest about it,” says Ootes. Smaller communities might have an RCMP member, a nurse, a teacher or two and an area administrator and that’s about it. Some members of the NWT Council—the precursor to the Legislative Assembly—lived in the North, but few were elected. For the most part, the orders affecting Northerners were dispatched out of Centennial Towers, often made by bureaucrats who’d never been North of 60. Based on recommendations from the Carrothers Commission (which travelled the North in 1965 and 1966 to gather opinions and observations on what a territorial government should look like) federal responsibilities were to be transferred to the territory. Earlier in 1967, Indian and Northern Affairs minister Arthur Laing announced Yellowknife would become the capital.
The piston-engine plane passed over Great Slave Lake and reality set in. “I remember as we approached Yellowknife, one of the young ladies looked down and said, ‘That can’t be it. That’s not 35,000 people.’ Well, she thought she’d been told 35,000 instead of 3,500,” says Ootes, who is writing a book about the time.
The plane was met with a red carpet and a crowded airport. (A CBC reporter was staked out on the roof.) Local dignitaries welcomed the new arrivals with speeches. Then the man tasked with bringing government to a land of more than three million-square-kilometres, Commissioner Stuart Hodgson, not looking at all fatigued from the day of flying, said a few words. At last, we are home, he told the assembled crowd. “And of course, it was kind of an ironic statement because it hadn’t been his home,” says Ootes.
From there, the cavalcade went down to the Elk’s Hall for a party. The Ottawa arrivals, dressed in suits, mingled with people who’d just come in from bush camps. Before too long, Hodgson announced he had to go home because at 8:30 a.m. the next morning, he was going to open government.
Over the next three years, through community visits, phone calls and letter correspondence, Hodgson and his team created new departments that federal responsibilities were devolved to. “He definitely had an authority about him to get things accomplished and nothing stood in his way,” says Ootes, who would work as executive assistant to the man the Inuit called Umingmak (muskox in Inuktitut). It helped Hodgson had the support of Prime Minister Lester Pearson and later Pierre Trudeau. “He was a man who was really well respected by the higher-ups, so he could accomplish an awful lot,” says Ootes. “Ottawa fed the territorial government the money. Hodgson was instrumental in being very persuasive to get more and more money from Ottawa.”
Within a year, most departments were established and, by 1970, the government had spread across the Northwest Territories—from the Mackenzie Mountains east to Baffin Island. Still, most of the early hires were from the south. It would take quite some time before the workforce was more representative of its population. (In 1975, the NWT Council was fully elected for the first time, and Inuit, Métis and Dene members held the majority.)
The arrival of government didn’t change things overnight, but Ootes says it did provide a larger resource to call on to get things done in the North. “It wasn’t the be all and end all, but it certainly was much closer to the people, much more responsive. It had the resources to do things,” says Ootes, who travelled to each community with Hodgson, once a year for eight years, to listen to grievances and concerns from Northerners and, in the process, hand power back to the people through community government. –HM
1977: Mackenzie Valley
The story is heard
It was seen as a keystone of the country’s national energy future and Northern development policy. It was seen as a steel stake driven through the heart of the people. It was a proposed 48-inch-diametre pipeline to move natural gas from the Beaufort Sea down the Mackenzie Valley and on to Alberta.
The stakes were high. Following decades of broken treaty promises, the Dene had united and launched legal challenges to reassert their rights to the land. The Mackenzie Valley pipeline inquiry—held to assess the largest construction project ever considered for the North—would prove a watershed moment, pitting competing
visions of the North, from within and without, against each other.
In March 1975, B.C. Supreme Court Judge Thomas Berger kicked off an inquiry to examine the economic, social and environmental impacts of the project with a speech at a Yellowknife hotel. It was immediately clear this would be unlike any public consultation undertaken thus far in the North. Berger would talk to oil and engineering experts, but he also wanted to hear from the people who lived on the land the pipeline was to traverse. “The proposed pipeline is not to be considered in isolation,” he said. “I want to hear from anyone who wishes to speak, because you have the right to speak, to tell me what you think this proposed pipeline will mean to you, to your family, and to your life.”
Berger went to the people. And he listened. Hearings were held in classrooms, homes, community halls and bush camps. One trapper travelled 70 miles by skidoo to speak at a hearing in Arctic Red River (Tsiighetchic). Berger did not cut people off, allowing them to air their historical grievances even if they strayed from his mandate. In Hay River, Fred Martel took a paper bag and dumped its contents onto a table. Out fell candies and chocolate bars, worth five dollars—his annual treaty payment. “That’s what we get for only one year to boss our land around,” said Martel. The point was taken.
Berger’s approach was welcomed. “This is the first time in the history of my people that an important person from your nation has come to listen and learn from us, and not just come to tell us what we should do, or trick us into saying yes to something that in the end is not good for us,” Frank T’Seleie, Chief of Fort Good Hope said.
Indigenous Northerners had grown to resent government and distrust the promises of southerners. At a hearing in Tuktoyaktuk, Vince Steen, a trapper and future NWT cabinet minister, explained why. First, he said, white whalers arrived and overhunted whales, which resulted in a quota for Inuvialuit. Then traders came and took advantage of trappers, requiring beaver furs stacked as high as a rifle to consummate that trade. Then government settled people in communities and took their kids away to school. “The people won’t take a white man’s word at face value any more because you fooled them too many times,” he said.
Still, opinion was divided and many, including southern transplants, wanted the pipeline to go ahead, anticipating the economic boom its construction would bring. Tensions ran high at times. In Fort Simpson, community meetings were separated between indigenous and non-indigenous residents.
Throughout the inquiry, dispatches were broadcast from communities on the CBC—often in Dene languages or in Inuktitut. It was the first time Northerners saw themselves on TV. And the story also resonated across Canada. People saw the North wasn’t some unoccupied hinterland to be exploited for its riches but “they began to understand it was a homeland of a people who had occupied it for time immemorial,” writes Patrick Scott in Stories Told, a recollection of his experiences travelling with the inquiry for the CBC.
Berger heard impassioned speeches from leaders, from elders and youth that there should be no development without a land claim agreement in place first. It was a line-in-the-sand moment.
And in 1977, Berger recommended a ten-year moratorium on the pipeline in order to settle land claims. (Ironically, a pipeline proponent later admitted this decision saved his company from bankruptcy, as natural gas prices fell in later years.) In the aftermath, a territory-wide land claim process would fall through, but many Dene First Nations have since signed land claim and self-government agreements.
Near the end of the inquiry, Georges Erasmus, the first Dene Nation chief, took a step back and put the moment in historical context. The attention the inquiry had received nationally gave all Canadians the chance to consider the merits of the project and whom it would benefit. “Internationally this has been a forum in which we have given an example to the international community on how major projects, like the pipeline, should be approached,” he continued.
But he saw it had done much more. It had helped to unify the Dene, who went public with the Dene Declaration that called for self-government during the inquiry. “The inquiry has been a process in which we have been decolonizing ourselves.” –HM
Taking back the land
It was 40-below and clear out on January 28, 1970 when a group of nineteen people met in a craft shop in Inuvik to talk about the land the federal government was giving away. Inuvialuit, Métis and Dene of the Beaufort Delta had been holding meetings in secret through the 1960s, planning a defense against incoming oil companies.
“People felt they were losing ground, in more ways than one,” land claims negotiator Nellie Cournoyea told Up Here. “It was difficult to explain to the government and to the oil and gas industry the long-term commitment we have to make sure the environment is protected.”
Many mineral rights leases had been granted to major oil companies by 1970, some on local hunting areas and traplines outside of Tuktoyaktuk. By the time the companies approached the local people, they already had drilling permits in hand; by the time the people’s letters of concern reached the minister in charge in Ottawa, exploration drilling had already begun.
On that cold January night, the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement was established to defend the rights of the first peoples of the Beaufort Delta. It wasn’t that they were necessarily opposed to the oil industry, but they wanted to exert some control and have some influence over development on their lands.
In 1970, seismic testing was permitted by Canada near Sachs Harbour, NWT, which caused residents to worry about how it affected wildlife migration. Regulations were sparse and oil companies had barged onto other Inuvialuit lands before, regardless of local opposition. So COPE threatened legal action, which pressured the federal government to put in place land-use rules. Requirements for environmental monitoring soon followed.
Meanwhile, Inuit in Canada were discussing a land claims proposal encompassing both the eastern and western Arctic. A plan was proposed to Pierre Trudeau’s government in 1976 and then withdrawn for revisions. But Inuvialuit, seeing more pressure from development than their eastern neighbours, decided to go it alone.
Developing a regional land claim for Inuvialuit required a majority vote from would-be beneficiaries. COPE members, including Lillian Elias, went door to door to get out the vote. She recalls riding in the backs of trucks on unpaved roads and getting covered with mud doing that. “I had to shake my hair out every time I’d go into buildings to ask them to vote,” says Elias. Nearly every single eligible vote was cast and 98 percent were in favour of a regional settlement.
The goal was to enshrine Inuvialuit rights to participate equally in the Northern economy and protect their culture and language. Environmental regulations on development, under the agreement, would now require Inuvialuit consultation before permitting to preserve land and wildlife for future generations.
The first proposal was presented to the federal government on May 13, 1977.
In the years that followed, one negotiator from each Inuvialuit community flew around the North—and back and forth to Ottawa—to hammer out a deal.
Eventually, the agreement set aside more than 90,000-square-kilometres under the Inuvialuit Settlement Region—15,000 of this including subsurface mineral, oil and gas rights. The Western Arctic Land Claims Agreement—Inuvialuit Final Agreement was signed on June 5, 1984. It was the first comprehensive land claims agreement North of 60 and has generally been the model for land claims to follow.
In 2015, Cournoyea, then-chair of the Inuvialuit Regional Corporation, signed an agreement-in-principle for Inuvialuit self-government. This would put law-making, education, culture and language under the authority of the Inuvialuit government. It means decisions will be based on the traditional values of the Inuvialuit people, rather than the federal or territorial governments.
It’s something, Elias says, was clearly missing in earlier days. “Language and culture and tradition, elders and people wanted that. It meant more to them than having all that cash.” –EA
Rights and relationships
Growing up in Whitehorse in the 50s and 60s, Judy Gingell and her family were always told what to do. They were told to move houses eight times—at one point, all six kids were crammed into a one-room shack. They were told they had to go to residential schools. They were told the land was no longer theirs and watched important places get bulldozed.
“I started to wonder ‘Who is this person who has so much power over us, who calls us Indian, who calls us status, who tells us where to live and who our chief is?’” She would soon find out the answer was Canada, as the young woman, barely 20 years old, first read over the Indian Act. “It became quite clear we were wards of the federal government,” reflects Gingell. “Something had to be done. We had to make the change.”
Over the past five decades, Gingell has worked tirelessly alongside other First Nation leaders in the Yukon to make that change happen. It started in 1968, when she was a founding director of the Yukon Native Brotherhood, a strong grassroots movement of chiefs and delegates headed up by their elected president Elijah Smith. In 1973, the group, now renamed Council of Yukon Indians (present-day Council of Yukon First Nations) travelled to Ottawa to present their formal proposal “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow” to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, demanding “fair and just” land claim settlement from Canada. It told the story of a people determined to make a better future and it spurred two decades of on-again-off-again negotiations between First Nations and reps from Canada and the Yukon.
“We were rebuilding ourselves as First Nations people,” Gingell says. “We were really just beginning to find out how many First Nations are in the Yukon, how many languages are spoken, what level the languages are at, and the problem with the education system. We had lawyers, consultants. We just went at it. We knew what had to be done, what had to be fixed. It was very trying, but we all stuck together.”
When talks with the feds were going badly, some First Nations leaders were tempted to seek out retribution—and they discussed the possibility of taking Canada to court. That’s when the elders stepped in to provide the guidance that would steer the course to the present. “The elders said, ‘We know we own the whole of the Yukon, so why do we need to go to court to fight for something that’s ours?’” recounts Gingell of those conversations. “‘We are not here to treat people the way they have treated us all these years. We are not here for payback. We are here to make partnerships.’”
Finally, in 1993, they signed the Umbrella Final Agreement, a landmark document that sets out how each of the 14 Yukon First Nations would shape their individual land claim and self-government agreements (11 of the 14 have finalized to date). It addresses everything from land management to economic development, to language and culture and education—and there’s nothing else like it in Canada.
The agreement is based on the principles of sharing and co-management, and not about going separate ways. “The feds saw the final agreement as a divorce. We see it as a marriage,” says Gingell—a lesson she took with her into her roles as Chair of Council of Yukon Indians from 1989 to 1995 and as the first aboriginal Commissioner of the Yukon from 1995 to 2000. She received the Order of Canada in 2013 for her role in advancing rights and governance in the Yukon. The Governor General’s website notes Gingell is “renowned for her ability to build bridges between peoples.”
Now, with her own Kwanlin Dün First Nation over 10 years into its own self-government agreement, Gingell is starting to appreciate the accomplishment. “I keep hearing that what we have done in the Yukon is something that is really, really good,” she says. “And if we could see more of this kind of agreement with other groups in Canada, it would make a lot of difference. We have something to be thankful for.”
Now it’s Canada 150. How does Judy Gingell feel about her country? “It happened. What are you going to do? You can’t change the past. So make a difference. Do what we have to do for our future generations.” – Katharine Sandiford
Our land. Finally
Just 10 miles west of Naujaat, Nunavut, explorer John Rae and his men spent the winter of 1846 in iglus that Inuit had taught them to build. Jack Anawak is home in Naujaat for a visit to hunt seal when we speak. He never learned about Inuit helping European explorers while he attended the mission school in Chesterfield Inlet in the 1960s. All he read about were the noble and historic feats of the brave qallunaat adventurers.
The education system did little to preserve Inuit oral history and promote culture and language. And as a minority within the fledgling Northwest Territories government, other Inuit issues tended to fall by the wayside too. Culture and language programs, says Anawak, a former Member of Parliament for the Nunatsiaq riding of the eastern Arctic, only received funding when there was a bit left over in the budget. “For some of us, who had gone to a residential school where we didn’t speak Inuktitut, this became a vitally important issue,” says Anawak.
There had been a push to divide the eastern and western Arctic—first suggested along the lines of Inuit in the east and Dene and Métis in the west. Two bills went before the House of Commons in the early 1960s but failed to gain momentum. The Carrothers Commission report recommended the Northwest Territories one day be divided into two regions, but not yet. It also led to Yellowknife—a long way from the eastern Arctic—becoming capital of the territory.
Studying the range in which Inuit travelled and hunted, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada—the organization representing Inuit, now known as the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami—proposed a land claim agreement to the federal government in 1976. It read: “The basic idea is to create a territory, the vast majority of people within which, will be Inuit. As such, this territory and its institutions will better reflect Inuit values and perspectives than with the present Northwest Territories.”
A key piece of that agreement was the division of the Northwest Territories roughly along the treeline and the creation of a new territory, Nunavut—our land in Inuktitut. A plebiscite was held in 1982 and 56 percent of the NWT voted in favour of division.
The Tunngavik Federation of Nunavut emerged as the organization handling land claim negotiations and in 1992 found equal ground with the Mulroney government.
As the process of transferring governance to Nunavut got rolling, a letter landed on Anawak’s desk: the Department of Indian Affairs and Northern Development wanted his input on the commission selected to create the Government of Nunavut. “On the list was 10 people. Of those 10 people, nine were qallunaat. The chair was going to be Dennis Patterson, our current senator. They asked my office what do we think and I said ‘No, no, no. This isn’t how it should be,’” says Anawak. “This was supposed to be our territory and I was certainly not going to allow qallunaat to determine what kind of government we were going to have.” In the end, the group was made up of nine Inuit and one white man.
Culture and language would be integral. An early proposition was that a group of elders make up a quasi-senate. There was also an initial goal of a government operating exclusively in Inuktitut by 2020. And they had until April 1, 1999 to make it all happen.
From the beginning, the idea was to have a majority Inuit workforce in government to reflect the territory’s population. In 2006, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (which represents Inuit under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement) filed a lawsuit against the federal government for not living up to aspects of the agreement—underfunding education in particular—which had led to a lower percentage of Inuit working for the government. A settlement of $255 million was reached in 2015.
Within 50 years, Inuit went from a nomadic hunting lifestyle to forming a government, says Anawak. There’s still a lot to be done. “Some dreams haven’t happened but we’re only 17 years old, so there’s still time.”