‘For northerners by northerners:’ A look back at devolution in Yukon

Yukon was the first territory to sign a devolution agreement in 2003.

It’s been just over a week since the Nunavut government, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated and the federal government co-signed the Nunavut Lands and Resources Devolution Agreement.

The agreement gives the territory and its people more control of its natural resources and waterways.

Nunavut is the last of the three territories to sign a devolution agreement, nearly 21 years after Yukon.

Ed Schultz, who was grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) at the time the territory signed its agreement, said it’s something he advocated for.

“I think the positive outcome of that has been, I think, better relationships between Yukon First Nations citizens and other Yukoners. I also think that we now have seen a better ability for our local governments,” he said.

According to the federal government’s website, devolution is a “key pillar” of its northern strategy “with the goal of providing Northerners with more control over their own economic and political destiny.”

On Apr. 1, 2003, Yukon became the first territory to take over land and resource management responsibilities. It was the final step in the territory’s devolution process.

That same day, amendments to the federal Yukon Act came into effect, based on the Yukon Northern Affairs Program Devolution Transfer Agreement between the federal government, Yukon government and signatory Indigenous groups.

Prior to Yukon devolution, the federal government, through the then Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, was responsible for the majority of natural resources in the territory.

Schultz said in the decades leading up to devolution, there was hostility between Indigenous people and the federal government.

He recalled how during the 1960s and ’70s, First Nations had little power to make autonomous decisions, such as where to build water plants or sublet land. Bureaucracy, he said, would also mean projects were often dragged out for months or even years at a time.

“They ruled your life from cradle to grave, right? I personally hated it,” he said.

Schultz said devolution couldn’t have happened in the territory without the Umbrella Final Agreements (UFA) a decade prior.

The UFA was signed by the federal government, Yukon government and CYFN in 1993.

It set the ball rolling for 11 of territory’s 14 First Nations to move away from the Indian Act, settle their individual Final Agreements and become self-governing.

Just a few years later, devolution negotiations began in 1998.

“Quite frankly it was the First Nations who caused devolution,” Schultz said. “The treaties came first. That was the prerequisite, right? You had to have the treaties. The treaties gave the leverage.”

Ed Schultz was Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN) at the time of Yukon’s devolution agreement. Photo: Sara Connors/APTN

‘For northerners by northerners’

Ken Coats, professor of Indigenous governance at Yukon University, said devolution happened “in the right order” as land claims were largely in the process of being settled before devolution came into effect.

“The Yukon has undergone a political transformation and a renaissance the like of which Canada has never seen,” he said.

“(Now it’s) northern decisions made for northerners by northerners. That’s a major, major transition. One that quite frankly, if you go back 40, 50 years, you would’ve thought unlikely. Yet, here it is.”

Coates said after the territory obtained responsible government in 1979, it began to administer its own affairs, though it did not yet have full powers.

He said that meant federal departments like education and healthcare were already being administered by the territory at the time of devolution.

Coates was quick to point out the territory still requires federal backing to pay for the cost of its programs and services.

“Without a fiscal framework that we have in place, which means these are some of the most heavily subsidized societies on earth, then it’s really hard to imagine the Yukon being as prosperous and successful as it is,” he said.

“We’re a government-dependent economy and a government-dependent society. It’s not a bad thing, but it relies very much on the federal government still looking at us favorably.”

Almost two decades later, he said devolution in the territory was nearly “seamless.”

“The First Nations treaties are still there. They’re intact. Their self-government is respected and honored. The role of the federal government in sort of equalizing the realities of Canada is still there. They’re still paying money for housing and things of that sort. So, we just got more control locally.”

Read More:

           Nunavut signs historic agreement to take control of land, waterways and mineral rights

Canada and Nunavut sign devolution agreement, here’s what it means

Retired senator says Nunavut on its way to achieving government powers similar to provinces

In 2012, amendments were made to resource revenue-sharing arrangements under the Yukon Northern Affairs Program Devolution Transfer Agreement and the 1993 Canada-Yukon Oil and Gas Accord.

The amendments ensure a greater portion of the revenues generated from the mining and resource economy in Yukon are available for use in the territory.

Schultz said while devolution didn’t happen overnight, it allowed for the territorial government and First Nations to work together in a co-management regime.

“Now it’s a requirement for Yukon government and Canada to actually respect our rights that are protected in those treaties, our system of governance, and to ensure that to the best degree possible, that when development is done, that it’s done in a manner consistent with those agreements and protects the rights of that we have as Indigenous peoples,” he said.

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