Key players, movers and shakers in the negotiation of the Yukon’s land claim settlements came together over the weekend in Whitehorse.
It was not for a class reunion. It was to boil down the 292-page Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) to a nine-page summary of the key principles contained in the agreement.
Now 25 years after the first four First Nation settlements were appended to the Constitution of Canada in 1995, there is a feeling that Yukoners are losing touch with the spirit and intent of the UFA.
It was said over the weekend there are those who deal with responsibilities that fall directly under the UFA who have not read the document.
There needs to be more effort in the schools to ensure youth understand the promises of co-operative governing made in the UFA.
More education in general is needed to emphasize the importance of the agreement and how it was built on sharing and co-management of the territory’s wildlife, its natural resources.
It was said the UFA, the First Nation final agreements and self-government agreements are living documents meant to guide Yukoners – all Yukoners – into the future, into next year, and the years after that, into the next decade, and the decades after that.
It’s important Yukoners do not lose sight of the commitments made in those agreements, not now, not ever, it was emphasized over the weekend.
The First Principles Project arose out discussions between Tony Penikett, a former NDP premier, Tim Koepke, a former chief federal negotiator, and Judy Gingell, the former chair of what was the Council for Yukon Indians.
Of the 40 or so in attendance at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre were many of the senior negotiators who represented the First Nations, the Yukon government and Canada 30 years ago. Others were invited, but -40 and colder temperatures – -49 in Pelly Crossing – prevented travel.
Former NDP government leader Piers McDonald, who previously served in Penikett’s territorial cabinet during the formative years of the UFA, was there.
Southern Tutchone elder Chuck Hume of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations was there, as were Angie Joseph Rear, former chief of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Anne Wally, former chief of the Carcross-Tagish First Nation.
Through the weekend, they sat in working groups, came together in full-circle discussions.
There were scribes invited to assist with the gathering of ideas and thoughts, to assist with boiling down the UFA.
By 2 p.m. yesterday, the gathering was presented with a nine-page draft document of the key principles laid out in the agreement. Participants will have until Friday to review the draft and suggest any changes.
“I think it was an overwhelming success,” Koepke explained in an interview at the end of the day Sunday.
He said that 40 people could come together and create such a document was a product of true co-operation.
“It was working together,” he said in a subtle reference to Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow, the position paper presented in 1973 by the First Nations to the late prime minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau that kicked off land claim negotiations in the Yukon. “We proved the point.”
As he explained during the weekend, Penikett reiterated in an interview that the Constitution of the United States, the most powerful country in the world, is just 12 pages long. Every student in the U.S. will have read it several times before they finish school, he said.
The UFA and the individual settlements, Penikett said, represent a shining example of building successful relationships. It’s an example not just for the Yukon but for Canada and the world, he insisted.
The two-term premier said he would like to see the summary of key principles get into Yukon classrooms at all grade levels.
Perhaps the 3,000 words can be reduced further to 2,000 words for the mid-grades, and down even further for the elementary grades.
He quipped that Keith Halliday, a local author of children’s books and one of the scribes recruited to assist, might even turn the key principles into a book for youngsters.
There was discussion during the weekend about the need to get the key principles into the hands of older Yukoners and not just those who deal with matters under the Umbrella Final Agreement, Penikett noted.
There was a suggestion during the weekend that the summary be distributed at the many conferences hosted by the Yukon. It was noted there are opportunities to create podcasts and use other forms of social media to circulate the principles of the UFA.
Penikett said once the nine-page document has been finalized, the group of participants who volunteered to remain involved will begin developing a strategy about how to ensure the spirit and intent of the agreements are remembered and not lost.
There was such interest in the First Principles Project that participants paid their own travel costs and accommodations, whether they came from the communities or out of territory, he said.
Penikett said they purposely did not seek funding from private sponsors, as they wanted no affiliation or obligation to any party.
Politicians and sitting chiefs were not invited, he explained. Grand Chief Peter Johnston of the Council of Yukon First Nations did welcome the participants Saturday morning.
Penikett said they wanted the people who were sitting at the negotiating table 30 years ago – and they got them.
Former territorial court judge Barry Stuart was among them. He took a break from the bench to serve as Penikett’s chief negotiator in the late 1980s and early ’90s.
In an interview, Stuart pointed out that he and the late Art Pape, a senior lawyer who negotiated on behalf of individual First Nations, had always talked about the need for something like the First Principles Project.
There is a need to keep alive the spirit and intent of the Umbrella Final Agreement, to ensure that spirit and intent are understood, he said.
Stuart said the UFA recognizes there are differences between the First Nation and non-First Nation communities. It’s a means of respecting those differences, not getting rid of them, he said.
Stuart said the land claim settlements are already having a profound, positive impact, and you don’t have to look far to see it.
But the agreements are young, and it’s essential the spirit and intent of those agreements never grow old, he explained.
Jocelyn Joe-Strack of Champagne-Aishihik was invited as a scribe. She is a self-described daughter of the land claims who had a parent who sacrificed time at home to negotiate a just settlement for their people.
Joe-Strack said in an interview she’s always known it would be her generation’s duty to go forward with the implementation of the agreements.
“I got a real affirmation that the spirit and intent of those agreements is alive,” she said of her experience during the weekend.
Chuck Tobin and Star editor Jim Butler performed as scribes during the weekend event.