It was an historic day for native people in the Yukon. In February, 1973, representatives for the Yukon Native Brotherhood were in Ottawa to present their Yukon land claim.
Led by Chief Elijah Smith, they delivered a document called 'Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow' to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. The meeting is often heralded as the turning point for settlements of aboriginal rights in Canada. I was there that day, and well recall that they impressed the Prime Minister with the presentation, and with the ad-libbed words of wisdom from Elijah Smith.
Later that year, the Yukon Native Brotherhood and the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians joined forces to form the Council for Yukon Indians to further the land claim process that had just begun.
Edward Elijah Smith, the son of Annie Ned, had a lot to do with that. He was born on July 12, 1912, in Champagne, and lived in the Yukon all his life except the six years he spent with the Canadian Army overseas during WW II. However, it was in the Yukon that Elijah Smith became a fighter.
By the mid-1960s the Yukon First Nations, fearful of losing their cultural identity, began to organize. During hearings on the federal white paper at Whitehorse in 1968, Smith spoke of being treated like squatters in their own country. He said that Yukon Indians wanted the government of Canada to see that we get a fair settlement for the use of the land.
Elijah Smith was the founding president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood and was also a founding Chairperson of the Council for Yukon Indians, since renamed the Council of Yukon First Nations. He encouraged Yukon native people to stay in school. Many of these students would eventually play instrumental roles in land claims and self-government negotations.
He served as Chief of the Kwanlin Band, Founding President of the Yukon Native Brotherhood, Founding Chairman of the Council for Yukon Indians, and Yukon representatives to the National Indian Brotherhood.
He spoke persuasively of the need for unity among First Nations people long before his vision was widely accepted. Twenty years after Elijah Smith led a group of Yukon native people to Ottawa, they signed the umbrella final land claim agreement, setting the stage for the completion of modern-day treaties for each of the Yukon's fourteen First Nations.
Smith held an honourary degree of Doctor of Laws and was named to the Order of Canada. He remained a prominent figure throughout the land claims process until his death in a tragic accident in October, 1991. To honour his memory, the federal building in Whitehorse is named for him, as well is the Elijah Smith elementary school in Whitehorse opened on September 8, 1992.
A CKRW Yukon Nugget by Les McLaughlin