Chapter 4 – Yukon First Nations’ Relationship with Newcomers


Like other areas of Canada, Yukon had reserve lands, but they were created and used in different ways than in the rest of Canada, where Indigenous peoples were forcibly moved to reserves starting in the nineteenth century. Compared to government interference outside the Territory, during the early 20th century, policies that focused on Yukon Indigenous peoples were few, and people were primarily left alone. It wasn’t until the 1930s and 1940s that the federal and territorial governments began creating policies to control indigenous peoples. This was primarily due to the cost of creating and implementing policies.

Early on, one Indigenous community asked the government to grant them tracts of reserve land within their homelands to protect their people from the often-negative social influences of newcomers (Kwanlin Dün First Nation 2013:23). In 1902, Chief Jim Boss (Kishxóot) of the Ta’an Kwäch’än wrote a letter to the Department of Indian Affairs stating that land privatization and overhunting by newcomers was causing hardship to his people. He requested “protection of a portion of his people’s traditional land” (Kwanlin Dün First Nation 2013:23). He demanded that the government control overhunting and compensate his people for the lands that had been appropriated by newcomers. The federal government’s Indian Agent granted them a reserve; it was relocated four times, without the First Nation’s permission, between 1915 and 1921 (Kwanlin Dün First Nation 2013:38).[1]

An Indian Agent was brought to Yukon by the Department of Indian Affairs in 1914, but his role was to provide welfare payments and health services (Coates 1996:197). By the 1940s things began to change, mostly, as mentioned earlier, because of new federal universal social welfare changes. As Coates describes:

Having been all but ignored over the previous half-century, the Natives now faced the impact of national policies, countrywide initiatives for Indian people, and specific measures aimed at northern Natives. The transition from neglect to regular involvement was abrupt and disruptive [1996:199].

As fewer people were able to make a living from trapping and systemic racism limited employment opportunities, Indigenous peoples began to rely more heavily on welfare payments. Since payments were attached to the registration of children in day and residential schools, many families took part in village life for the first time.

Although reserves were created in the early twentieth century, for the most part Indigenous peoples did not use them initially. In the 1950s this changed, as the Department of Indian Affairs decided that Indigenous peoples should be housed away from areas that had increasing mining development. Some of the first reserves were created near existing communities, but they were completed in a piecemeal manner and only partially planned, and reserve land was usually in poor locations where it was difficult to meet subsistence needs (see Appendix C). Some of the new reserves and relocations that were completed included:

  • Aishihik residents moving to Haines Junction,
  • White River residents moving closer to the Alaska Highway,
  • Moosehide residents moving to Dawson City,
  • Ross River residents moving to Upper Liard Bridge,
  • Pelly River residents moving to Pelly Crossing, and
  • Fort Selkirk residents moving to Mayo, Minto, Carmacks, and Dawson City.

During this time of Indigenous movement to reserves, people were encouraged to stop hunting and trapping and to live sedentary lives. Community government structures were chosen for them by the Department of Indian Affairs, such as the band and council system. Some of the major issues with the reserve system were as follows:

  • They were poorly constructed and expensive;
  • There was overcrowding;
  • Legal title was uncertain;
  • Alcohol was readily available;
  • Socially, culturally, and linguistically diverse groups were expected to live on the same reserve;[2]
  • Populations grew as more people were brought to the reserve and housing shortages arose; and
  • Economic development created tensions as people competed from the few untrained labourer jobs that were available [Coates 1996].

Some have argued that there were upsides to reserve living, such as the convenience of having medical care close by, the ability to find wage labour, limited food scarcity, and the ability to remain separate from the bad influences that many newcomers brought to the territory (Coates 1996). Yet, for the most part, the reserve system created a backlash from Indigenous communities as people began to protest unfair living conditions, land title issues, and lack of adequate consultation between their villages and the Department of Indian Affairs. Even so, reserves became places of empowerment as they became hubs of political engagement. During the late 1960s, Indigenous leaders came together to protest the injustices perpetrated on Yukon’s Indigenous peoples.

  1. Community Elders have indicated that the resettlement of the Kwanlin Dün community occurred at least seven times over the past century.
  2. As examples, Champagne and Aishihik were two different communities that were joined in the 1970s, while Kluane represented communities from Snag, Burwash Landing, and Kloo Lake that were joined in 1961.


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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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