Chapter 4 – Yukon First Nations’ Relationship with Newcomers

Indigenous Peoples and Colonial Forces

Significant colonial[1] interactions between Yukon Indigenous peoples and newcomers have occurred in Yukon over the last 175 years. The arrival of the fur and whale trades, disease, missionaries, gold rushes, and the introduction of wage labour, wildlife conservation, government interventions, infrastructure development, and the land claim movement were all pivotal events that influenced and affected the lifeways of Indigenous peoples during that time. The following sections introduce some of the more prominent post-contact events that have occurred and discuss how Indigenous peoples have negotiated these events.

Indigenous Peoples and Colonial Forces

Numerous federal government laws, and commissions have affected Yukon First Nations peoples over the last two centuries. One of the most influential is the Royal Proclamation between Britain and Indigenous peoples in North America that was put forth by King George III in 1763 (Appendix A), which was initially meant to claim British territory in North America. The Royal Proclamation states that Aboriginal title[2] has existed and continues to exist, and that all land is considered Aboriginal land until ceded by treaty.[3] In other words, it is “recognized that Indigenous peoples were living in societies at the time of contact with Europeans, and that as a consequence we were required to gain their assent to settle on their lands” (Asch 2014:73). The Royal Proclamation prohibits newcomers from claiming land directly from the Indigenous inhabitants, unless it is first purchased by the Crown and then sold to the newcomers. It further states that only the Crown can buy land from Indigenous peoples. Other federal government policies and reports that stand out as important in the histories of Canada’s Indigenous peoples include the Indian Act of 1876 (Canada 1985), the Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy (Canada 1969), the British North American Act / Constitution Act (Canada 1982 [1867]), the Report of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples of Canada (Canada 1996), and Honouring the Truth, Reconciling for the Future: Summary of the Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2015).[4]

The Indian Act was introduced by the Canadian government in 1876, and was meant to govern relations between the federal government and Indigenous peoples (Canada 1985). For many people, the Indian Act was, and continues to be, seen as a means of assimilating[5] Indigenous peoples through the numerous versions of the Act. The Act made all status peoples wards of the state. Although some Indigenous peoples see the Act as being beneficial, since it provides them with special status and some protection of Aboriginal rights such as reserve land, medical care, and education, others see the act as paternalistic, since it enables the federal government to regulate and administer the activities of registered Indians and reserves. This includes political control, such as imposing governing structures on Indigenous communities in the form of band councils, as well as control over the rights of Indigenous peoples to practice their traditions and cultures, exemplified by the banning of complex feasts such as potlatches (Dickason and Newbigging 2010:199). The Indian Act also enables the government to define who is considered Indian through the granting of Indian status[6] and to control Indigenous people’s finances (creating economic dependence) and education (Frideres and Gadacz 2012:5–6). In essence, the Indian Act, which is still in effect today, remains a very controversial piece of legislation.

Another key event in Indigenous history occurred under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s government. In 1969, a White Paper[7] entitled “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy” was presented by then Indian Affairs Minister Jean Chrétien (Canada 1969). It proposed “ending the special legal relationship between Aboriginal peoples and the Canadian state” and dismantling of the Indian Act, Indian Status, and the Department of Indian Affairs (Schouls 2002:20–21). Eliminating the Act was meant to provide equality to all Canadians by abolishing distinct legal status for Indigenous peoples, which in turn meant providing them with the same rights and responsibilities as other Canadians (Schouls 2002:20–21). The White Paper proposed converting reserve land to private property that could be sold by the Indigenous band or its individual members, moving responsibility for Indigenous matters from the federal government to the provinces, and integrating specific Indigenous services into the same types of services as other Canadian citizens (Canada 1969:6; Indian Chiefs of Alberta 1970:188-281). The White Paper also suggested providing funding for economic development, appointing a commissioner to address outstanding land claims, and gradually terminating the existence of treaties (Belanger and Newhouse 2008:4–5). Indigenous leaders saw the White Paper as a “thinly disguised programme of extermination through assimilation” (Cardinal 1999:1). The policy was eventually not put in place because of negative reaction from Indigenous groups and other organizations across the country (Indian Chiefs of Alberta 2011).

Later, due to protests and movements by Indigenous groups in Canada in the 1980s, Section 35, which sets out the “Rights of the Aboriginal Peoples of Canada,” was included in the Constitution Act, 1982:

  • (1) The existing aboriginal and treaty rights of the aboriginal peoples of Canada are hereby recognized and affirmed.
  • (2) In this Act, “aboriginal peoples of Canada” includes the Indian, Inuit and Métis peoples of Canada.
  • (3) For greater certainty, in subsection (1) “treaty rights” includes rights that now exist by way of land claims agreement or may be so acquired.
  • (4) Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, the aboriginal and treaty rights referred to in subsection (1) are guaranteed equally to male and female persons [Canada 1982, section 35].

The recognition of Indigenous rights in the Constitution has given Indigenous peoples in Canada the ability to pursue treaty claims in the courts, which had not been an option when their rights had not been entrenched. Another significant change to the Constitution was the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender. This led to Bill C-31, An Act to Amend the Indian Act (passed in 1985), which was meant to eliminate sexual discrimination in the Act (Canada 1985). Before this change, any Indigenous woman who married a non-Indigenous man lost both her own and her children’s Indian status. Bill C-31 offered two sections under which Indigenous people could register. Section 6(1) applied to people who had already been registered under the Indian Act prior to April 17, 1985. It stated that a person who was registered prior to that date was “considered to have two registered Indian parents and could pass your Indian status to your children.” If you were registered under section 6(2) it meant that you were considered to only have “one registered Indian parent and you needed to marry another registered Indian to pass your status to your children” (National Centre for First Nation Governance 2019).  This meant that until recently, anyone registered under section 6(2) could not pass their status on to their children. This mostly affected women as they were the ones that lost their Indian status if they married non-Indigenous men, prior to 1985. Recently, a Court of Appeals case, McIvor v. Canada, determined that “Canada is obligated to remove the discrimination and to ensure that all First Nations women and their descendants are granted Indian status on the same footing as First Nations men and their descendants” (Deer 2019).

  1. Stephen Silliman, a historical archaeologist, believes that in many cases, the studies themselves of contact between Indigenous peoples and newcomers are actually colonial in nature, and by colonial he means “(1) attempted domination by colonial settlers; and (2) resistance, acquiescence and living through these by Indigenous peoples” (Silliman 2005:59).
  2. Aboriginal title “refers to the inherent Aboriginal right to land or a territory. The Canadian legal system recognizes Aboriginal title as… unique collective right to the use of and jurisdiction over a group’s ancestral territories. This right is not granted from an external source but is a result of Aboriginal peoples’ own occupation of and relationship with their home territories as well as their ongoing social structures and political and legal systems” (First Nations and Indigenous Studies, University of British Columbia 2009).
  3. In this context a treaty is “an agreement between government and an Indigenous group in Canada that defines the rights of Aboriginal Peoples with respect to lands and resources over a specified area and may also define the self-government authority of” that group (University of Victoria n.d.).
  4. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s mandate was “to learn the truth about what happened in the residential schools and to inform all Canadians about what happened in the schools. The Commission documented the truth of what happened by relying on records held by those who operated and funded the schools, testimony from officials of the institutions that operated the schools, and experiences reported by survivors, their families, communities and anyone personally affected by the residential school experience and its subsequent impacts.” For more information see: 
  5. Assimilation is defined as “the absorption of a minority group into a majority population, during which the group takes on the values and norms of the dominant culture” (Darvill 2008:27).
  6. A person with status is defined here as “an individual recognized by the federal government as being registered under the Indian Act. They are referred to as a Registered Indian (commonly referred to as a Status Indian). Status Indians are entitled to a wide range of programs and services offered by federal agencies and provincial governments” (Canada 2012). A non-status Indian person “is someone who is not registered as an Indian under the Indian Act” but who may self-identify as Indigenous (Frideres and Gadacz 2012:55).
  7. The term White Paper “is commonly applied to official documents presented by Ministers of the Crown which state and explain the Canadian government's policy on a certain issue” (Parliament of Canada 2017).


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ECHO: Ethnographic, Cultural and Historical Overview of Yukon's First Peoples Copyright © 2020 by Victoria Elena Castillo; Christine Schreyer; and Tosh Southwick is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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