The 1978 territorial election held on November 20th was the first territorial election fought on party lines and resulted in the Yukon Party forming a majority government by winning 11 seats in the 16 seat legislature. The Yukon Party candidates elected included the following: Chris Pearson (Interim Leader), MLA for Whitehorse Riverdale North; Dan Lang, MLA for Whitehorse Porter Creek East; Howard Tracey, MLA for Tatchun; Grafton Njootli, MLA for Old Crow; Doug Graham, MLA for Whitehorse Porter Creek West; Dr. Jack Hibberd, MLA for Whitehorse South Centre; Geoff Latin, MLA for Whitehorse North Centre; Meg McCall, MLA for Klondike; Al Falle, MLA for Hootalinqua; Don Taylor, MLA for Watson Lake; and Peter (Swede) Hanson, MLA for Mayo. The Liberals won two seats: Liberal Leader Ian McKay, MLA for Whitehorse Riverdale South; and Alice McGuire, MLA for Kluane. The NDP won one seat: NDP Leader Tony Penikett, MLA for Whitehorse West. There were two independent candidates: Maurice Byblow, MLA for Faro, and Robert (Bob) Fleming, MLA for Campbell. The Liberals formed the Official Opposition in the legislature.
On February 3, 1979, Chris Pearson, the Interim Leader and MLA for Riverdale North, was elected as the Yukon Party Leader in an uncontested nomination. Mr. Pearson came to the Yukon in 1957. He joined the Yukon Government in 1960 and worked in the government for 13 years. In 1973, he left government for the private sector and became a businessman. Chris Pearson also served as the President of the Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce, was actively involved in the Rotary Club, as well as in numerous sports organizations. In addition to his business experience and extensive knowledge of government, he served on a number of government boards including the Yukon Electrical Public Utilities Board and the Yukon Small Business Loans Board. Mr. Pearson, as the Yukon Party Leader of the majority party in the legislature, effectively became the Government Leader heading up a five-member Executive Committee (Cabinet) including as well as himself: Dan Lang, Howard Tracey, Grafton Njootli, and Doug Graham. Chris Pearson served as the Government Leader (Premier) from 1978 to 1985. Upon his retirement from Yukon politics, he entered the Canadian diplomatic service serving in the Canadian Consulate in Dallas, Texas for a number of years. Mr. Pearson is now retired and lives in Radford, Virginia.
The new Yukon Party Government in its first term in office from 1978 to 1982 faced many challenges, namely:
- Gaining more responsible government over Yukon affairs, land and resources by having elected members run the Yukon Government instead of having it run by the Commissioner and two Assistant Commissioners appointed by Ottawa and operating under instructions from the federal Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development (DIAND).
- 2. Promoting the settlement of Yukon Indian Land Claims while representing the interests of non-beneficiaries in land claim negotiations and being recognized as a separate party to the negotiations rather than participating as part of the federal negotiating team.
- Protecting territorial integrity and the interest of all Yukoners in transboundary land claims such as the 15,000 square mile COPE Claim in northern Yukon presented by the Inuvialuit of the NWT, and the Tahltan Claim and Kaska-Dena Claim in southern Yukon presented by First Nations resident in British Columbia.
- Having the Yukon Government recognized as being a government in its own right by federal and provincial governments at federal-provincial conferences rather than accepting observer status and being considered as a branch of DIAND or as a “colony” of Canada.
- Protecting Yukon’s interests in the repatriation of the Canadian Constitution to allow for the recognition of aboriginal rights, and provide for the settlement of land claims as well as attempting to ensure that there would be no constitutional barrier preventing the Yukon from achieving provincehood at a time of its choosing.
- Developing separate financial arrangements with the federal Department of Finance and Treasury Board rather than continue to negotiate territorial budgets solely with DIAND and continue to be treated by the federal government as a line item in the budget of DIAND.
- Contending with the introduction of party politics and working in a super-charged, politically partisan environment.
The first major success for the new Yukon Party Government occurred on February 26, 1979 with the release of the Memorandum of Understanding on Yukon Indian Land Claims. This federal-territorial agreement committed the federal government to recognizing the Yukon Government as a full party to the land claim negotiations and delegated the responsibility for land claims from Commissioner Ione Christensen to Government Leader Chris Pearson.
A second major success involving the development of responsible government was to follow soon after. On June 18, 1979, Government Leader Chris Pearson sent a letter to the new Minister of DIAND, the Hon. Jake Epp, in the newly elected Progressive Conservative Government of the Right Hon. Joe Clark, Prime Minister. A month earlier, on May 7, 1979, Joe Clark, in his capacity as Leader of the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, had given a speech in Whitehorse wherein he promised that a Progressive Conservative Government in Ottawa would offer the Yukon the option of Yukon becoming a province within the Conservative government’s first term in office if that is what Yukoners wanted. This offer stood out in marked contrast to the positions advocated by the Trudeau Liberal Government which wished to maintain the Commissioner as the non-elected head of government in Yukon as well as federal ownership of Yukon land and resources.
Government Leader Pearson’s letter requested the transfer of power from the Commissioner to the elected members through the issuing of new instructions to the Commissioner, the devolution of land and resources as well as stating the Yukon’s strong objections to the transboundary COPE Claim. The letter also addressed the issue of linking land for all Yukoners with Land Claims and proposed that the settlement of Yukon Indian Land Claims be based upon a “one-government system”. This concept stemmed from the Yukon Party’s “Yukoners Claim” resolution. Under the “one-government system,” First Nations would be guaranteed participation in the territorial government that would provide common government services, such as health care and education, to both First Nation citizens and other Yukoners alike. The proposal was designed to prevent the costly duplication of services whereby First Nations governments, based on the Indian Act, would provide government services separately to First Nation citizens while the Yukon Government would provide these same services to other Yukoners. The concept of the “one-government system” was outlined in a Draft Discussion Paper, entitled Guaranteed Indian Involvement in the Governmental Process, by Professor David Elliott developed for the Yukon Government’s Land Claims Secretariat. It ultimately formed the basis of the Umbrella Final Agreement signed in 1993 by the Government of Canada, the Council for Yukon First Nations and by the Yukon Party Government.
On October 9, 1979, The Hon. Jake Epp, Minister of DIAND, responded to Chris Pearson’s letter of June 18th by issuing new instructions to Commissioner Christensen. The new instructions greatly reduced the powers of the Commissioner; removed the Commissioner from the Executive Committee; bound the Commissioner to accepting the advice of the Executive Council on all matters under Territorial jurisdiction; removed the Commissioner’s office from the Yukon Government Building; allowed the Government Leader to use the title of “Premier” and the Executive Committee to be called the “Executive Council” or “Cabinet”; Members of the Executive Council could also use the title “Minister”. Commissioner Christensen, who had been appointed by the previous federal Liberal government resigned in protest. The now famous “Epp Letter” represented the most significant advancement in responsible government in the Yukon since the formation of the first wholly elected legislature in 1909. To this day, the “Epp Letter” remains the basis of the Yukon’s Cabinet government because the Yukon Act still has not been amended to enshrine these changes in law.
Unfortunately, the rapid progress made in relation to the development of responsible government in the territory under the “Pro-Yukon” Progressive Conservative Government of Prime Minister Clark came to an end with the re-election of the “Anti-Yukon” Liberal Government of Prime Minister Trudeau in the federal election held on February 18, 1980. It is interesting to note that in Yukon, Erik Nielsen was once again re-elected as Yukon’s Member of Parliament defeating the Liberal candidate, the former Commissioner who had resigned over the “Epp Letter”, Mrs. Ione Christensen. As a consequence of this federal election, the Yukon Party Government knew it was facing an uphill battle in making any further advances in devolution or the ownership and control of Yukon land and resources as well as in its fight to protect territorial integrity in relation to trans-boundary land claims such as those presented by COPE of the NWT and the Tahltan and Kaska-Dena of British Columbia.
In reviewing the seven major challenges facing the Yukon Party Government, the Yukon Party had achieved its objective of having more responsible government in that the elected representatives were now running the government instead of the federally appointed Commissioner. The next challenges were to attempt to consolidate the constitutional advances made in the “Epp Letter” in law, and to gain more Yukon control over the territory’s land and resources. At this time, the Yukon Government had less than two tenths of one percent of Yukon’s 186,300 square miles under its control with DIAND controlling the other 99.8%. The settlement of land claims was one of the pre-conditions the previous federal Liberal Government had set before there would be major land and resource transfers to the Yukon Government. The Yukon Party Government, with just cause, began to suspect that even after the settlement of all of the outstanding land claims land and resource transfers to the territorial government would be minimal. It is for this reason why the Yukon Party Government Leader in his letter of June 18, 1979 to the Hon. Jake Epp had begun to make the linkage between the settlement of Yukon Indian Land Claims and the transfer of land and resources to the Yukon Government. The Yukon Party Government was working on a plan for the systematic transfer of lands to Yukon First Nations and to the government itself in order to make more land available to Yukoners. First Nations would receive land transfers as soon as they completed their selections and had signed off on a local government agreement. At the same time, land transfers to the Yukon Government would occur in traditional territories of the First Nations that had settled and where land use planning processes were in place. “Land For All Yukoners” was going to become the major rallying cry for the Yukon Party in the 1982 territorial election campaign.
With the signing of the Memorandum of Understanding on Yukon Indian Land Claims in February of 1979, the Yukon Party Government had become a key player in land claim negotiations. By the summer of 1981, major progress was being made in Yukon Indian Land Claim negotiations. On August 13th, the three Chief Negotiators, Dennis O’Connor for the federal government, Dave Joe for the CYI, and Willard Phelps for the territorial government, announced agreements had been reached in relation to: Eligibility & Enrollment; Wildlife Harvesting; Fishing; Trapping; Land Use Planning; Education; Social Programs; Upgrading of Housing and Municipal Services; Land Tenure; and Land Selection Procedures. Two months later in October at a Northern Native lifestyle Conference in Whitehorse, The Chief CYI Negotiator Dave Joe revealed that 14 agreements-in-principle had been signed including an agreement to advance land claims monies to Indian elders but were currently stalled on the issue of municipal services. He called for a final agreement that would see both native and non-native Yukoners having access to Yukon land. Dave Joe went further and announced that CYI was asking the federal government to grant Yukon ownership of the off-shore resources on the North Slope. The speech was significant not only for showing that considerable progress was being made in relation to settling Yukon Indian Land Claims, but also because it showed that both the CYI and the Yukon Party Government were conveying the same message to the federal government.
The third major challenge confronting the Yukon Party Government also involved land claims – transboundary land claims. The protection of territorial integrity – that Yukon’s land and resources belonged to Yukoners and that Yukon’s boundaries should be held inviolate – were of paramount concern to the Yukon Party Government. The Yukon Party believed as witnessed by one of its founding resolutions, “Yukoners’ Claim”, that the land and resources of the territory should be owned and controlled by Yukoners, First Nations and other Yukoners alike. The job of the federal government, which currently owned and controlled the bulk of Yukon land, was to hold that land in trust for the people of Yukon pending transfer to Yukon First Nations and the Yukon Government. The proposal to transfer the ownership of large blocks of Yukon land through transboundary land claims to people who did not reside in Yukon was considered by the Yukon Party Government as an egregious betrayal of the federal trust. The situation was further exacerbated by the fact that Yukoners as individuals had very little access to land for any purpose and the democratically elected Yukon Government had less than one percent of Yukon’s land area under its control. The very thought of a non-resident claimant group registering a 15,000 square mile claim in Yukon, prejudicing a Yukon First Nation Claim and including the out right ownership in fee simple of 1,000 square miles, was akin to waving a red flag in front of a very angry Yukon bull. This was the situation the federal government and the Committee for Original Peoples’ Entitlement (COPE) found themselves in when on Halloween in 1978 they reached an agreement-in-principle in secret involving northern Yukon without any participation by Yukoners or the Yukon Government.
At the Annual General Meeting held in April of 1980, the Yukon Party resolved to oppose in court any attempt to implement the COPE Claim in Northern Yukon. This position contrasted sharply with a resolution passed on May 10th by the Yukon Liberal Party in support of COPE. Later in June and July, the Yukon Party Government commenced a public information campaign to make Yukoners aware of the implications of the COPE Claim on Yukon. The Yukon Party Government was concerned about the COPE Claim for three major reasons. The first reason was because of the precedent it would set for other extra-territorial land claims in Yukon. The Yukon was facing a number of transboundary land claims by aboriginal claimant groups living in the NWT, British Columbia, and possibly Alaska. The Inuvialuit of the NWT represented by COPE, for example, were originally from Alaska. Diseases brought by the white whalers on the whaling ships at Herschel Island had decimated the traditional, indigenous aboriginal population in northern Yukon who were then replaced by the Inuvialuit from Alaska. On October 6, 1980, the Government of Canada recognized the land claim of the Tahltans of British Columbia in Yukon. Similarly, on May 21, 1981, Liberal DIAND Minister John Munro announced funding for the Kaska-Dena Land Claim which included a transboundary claim in Yukon. Further extra-territorial land claims could be expected from the Tetlit Gwich’in and other Treaty 11 First Nations resident in the NWT.
The second major reason was because it prejudiced the land claim of the people of Old Crow. Under the COPE Agreement-in-Principle, the Inuvialuit were to receive exclusive hunting and trapping rights to approximately 8,000 square miles of land in northern Yukon which encroached upon the Old Crow Group Trapping Area and even included a portion of Old Crow Flats. Other provisions such as giving the Inuvialuit the right to hunt the Porcupine Caribou Herd on a commercial basis and establishing small settlements within the herd’s range were unacceptable to the Yukon Party Government.
The third major reason the Yukon Party Government was opposed to the COPE Claim was because it effectively cut the Yukon off from tidewater access to the Beaufort Sea and the potential economic benefits that could result from oil and gas development in Yukon’s offshore northern waters.
An agreement between the Yukon Party Government and COPE on hunting rights in northern was reached relatively quickly on November 6, 1980. Four days later, the Yukon Party Government released a position paper on the COPE Claim proposing the establishment of a joint YTG-COPE Wildlife Management Program as well as access routes to Yukon’s north coast and the reservation of potential harbour sites. This position paper was well received by COPE and also influenced the federal government as well. On January 13, 1981, for example, The Minister of DIAND sent a letter to the federal COPE Claim Negotiator, Senator Davie Steuart, instructing him to provide access to the Beaufort Sea through any park established on Yukon’s North Slope. This change in federal position represented another major victory for the Yukon Party Government. The settlement of the COPE Claim was to preoccupy the Yukon Party Government for most of its first two terms in office. The problems associated with other extra-territorial transboundary claims were to have a profound impact in future years on the Yukon Party itself and remain a serious outstanding issue to this day.
The fourth major challenge facing the Yukon Party Government was to gain recognition from the federal government and provincial governments that the territorial government was a government in its own right rather than being recognized merely as a branch of DIAND. The view of Mr. Justice Sissons that the Yukon was merely a colony of Canada was just as prevalent in 1982 as it was in 1962. The way to achieve this recognition was through establishing direct relations with provincial governments, federal departments other than DIAND, and by attending federal-provincial conferences and giving the Yukon perspective on the various issues under discussion. The purpose was to show the provinces that the Yukon had its own positions on issues that often differed from the positions being advocated by the federal government. The Yukon Party Government quickly gained provincial recognition for its expertise in dealing with comprehensive land claims. In January of 1982, for example, the provinces accepted Government Leader Pearson’s invitation to host a federal-provincial conference on native affairs. The federal Minister of DIAND John Munro, however, rejected this offer arguing that the Yukon could not host the conference because it was not a province. The provincial governments were insistent that the Yukon host the conference despite the federal government’s objection. The conference was in danger of proceeding without federal participation until the Yukon Party Government of its own accord turned the conference Chair over to the Province of New Brunswick.
At a Yukon Party Special General Meeting in January of 1981, Chris Pearson announced that the Yukon Government had been invited to attend a national pensions conference. This was the first time the Yukon Government was invited to attend a conference in its own right rather than as an observer. The Yukon Party gained considerable impetus in achieving this objective because of Prime Minister Trudeau’s decision to unilaterally repatriate the Canadian Constitution. In early February of 1981, the Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution agreed to allow the Yukon and the NWT to be represented at all future First Ministers Conferences on the Constitution. Present Yukon Governments now take it for granted that they will be invited to participate in all federal-provincial conferences. Little do they realize that they owe their participation to the efforts and hard work of the first two Yukon Party Governments in gaining recognition and respect for the territorial government as a government in its own right representing the interests of Yukoners rather than as a subservient government dictated to by the federal government in Ottawa.
While the debate over how to repatriate the Canadian Constitution helped the Yukon Party Government achieve its fourth major objective, the recognition of YTG as a government separate and distinct from Ottawa, it threw up major road blocks with respect to the settlement of Yukon Indian Land Claims and Yukon ultimately achieving provincehood. The fifth major Yukon Party objective was to ensure that the new proposed Canadian Constitution respected Yukon interests and did not hinder or block these two important processes. On March 23, 1981, Government Leader Pearson wrote to DIAND Minister John Munro expressing concern over the effect of the proposed Constitution Act on aboriginal rights and the settlement of land claims. Later in the month, on March 30th, the Yukon Legislative Assembly passed the following motion: “That the Government of Yukon undertake such action as is necessary to inform the Members of the British Parliament that it is the earnest desire of the Yukon Legislative Assembly that the British Parliament not act upon the proposed Canada Act, or any other Canadian general constitutional proposal, until the British Parliament receives evidence that any such proposal has the popular support of the Canadian Federal, Provincial, and Territorial governments and therefore, the support of the people of Canada.” The motion was passed with the NDP in support and the Liberal Leader, Ron Veale, voting against the motion.
The Constitutional debate had a dramatic impact on the settlement of Yukon Indian Land Claims and effectively delayed the settlement by over a decade. While aboriginal rights were finally recognized in the Constitution and land claims settlements were to be constitutionally entrenched, the constitutional discussions made the settlement of land claims much more protracted and difficult. The attention of all the parties to the negotiation, the federal and territorial governments as well as CYI, of necessity, had to be focussed on the Constitutional negotiations because those negotiations were determining the parameters of land claims settlements in Yukon and the rest of Canada. The deliberations on the new Canadian Constitution in relation to the national debate over how to deal with aboriginal rights and title, as well as land claims settlements and Treaty rights, totally undermined the substantial progress that had been made in settling Yukon Indian Land Claims. Effectively, the Yukon had to wait over a decade to allow the rest of the country time to catch up with it in defining the parameters of what can be achieved in a land claim settlement.
The impact of this “decade of delay” caused by Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal Government is still being felt today. One of the major stumbling blocks preventing the remaining seven Yukon First Nations from concluding their land claim settlements is the outstanding debt they owe the federal government for negotiating their claims. These First nations have to pay between 55% and 65% of their settlement monies back to the federal government to cover their negotiating loans. Effectively, these Yukon First Nations are being penalized for causing all the delays in settling Yukon Indian Land Claims when this one unilateral action by the federal Liberal Government alone is responsible for causing much of the delay in achieving the Yukon Indian Land Claim Settlement. Twenty years later in early March of 2001, DIAND Minister Robert Nault proposed an economic development offer reported to be in the $30 Million range to Yukon First Nations that is intended to off set the land claim negotiating costs of the Yukon First Nations who have yet to settle. Details of the economic development offer, however, have not been released and it remains undetermined if the $30 Million figure will in fact be sufficient to compensate Yukon First Nations for land claim negotiations costs.
If the constitutional discussions made the settlement of Yukon Indian Land Claims protracted and difficult, the proposed Constitution Act made Yukon’s constitutional aspiration of ultimately becoming a province virtually impossible. Previously, under the British North America Act, the issue of provincehood for a territory was a matter to be determined by the federal government and the territory in question alone. Under Prime Minister Trudeau’s Constitution Act, the issue of a territory becoming a province required the approval of seven provinces representing 50% of Canada’s population. The Yukon is unlikely to gain provincial support for provincehood, especially from the Province of Quebec, because of the impact the addition of a new province would have on the constitutional amending formula. Before Prime Minister Trudeau’s unilateral action to repatriate Canada’s Constitution, the Province of Quebec had a de facto veto over constitutional change in Canada with the exception of the creation of new provinces. Quebec found the “7 and 50″ amending formula unacceptable and to further dilute Quebec’s power under the formula through the addition of another province would be even more unacceptable. Consequently, the dream of Yukon ultimately becoming the 11th province in Canada is likely to remain unattainable.
The repatriation of the Canadian Constitution, like extra-territorial, transboundary land claims, also threatened the Yukon’s territorial integrity. Clauses 41(e) and (f) of the Constitution Act permitted the federal government with the agreement of seven provinces representing 50% of Canada’s population to alter the boundaries of the Yukon and the NWT in order to extend provincial boundaries into the territories. On November 26, 1981, Yukon M.P. Erik Nielsen introduced a motion in Parliament to delete these two clauses. The motion was defeated by a vote of 117 to 85 with the Progressive Conservatives and the NDP voting in favour of the motion and the Liberal Government members voting against it. Three days earlier, Yukon Party Government Leader Chris Pearson had presented a motion in the Yukon Legislative Assembly supporting a motion passed by the NWT Legislative Assembly calling for the deletion of these two clauses. The motion passed unanimously with even the two Liberal MLA’s voting in support.
It should be noted that Premier W.A.C. Bennett of British Columbia had proposed first in 1957 and again in 1968 that the boundaries of the Province of British Columbia should be extended to include the Yukon and the McKenzie River basin of the NWT. In response to this proposal, Territorial Councillor John Dumas stated in the Yukon legislature on November 13, 1968 that Victoria “wants our land, Ottawa wants our resources, and Edmonton wants our history.” The fact that the Trudeau Liberal Government included these two clauses in the proposed Constitution Act raised the suspicions of the Yukon Party Government that plans for the expansion of provincial boundaries at the expense of the territories were still being contemplated and that transboundary land claims were not the only threat to territorial integrity.
The Yukon Party Government’s sixth objective was to develop financial arrangements with the federal government separate from those of DIAND. In mid January of 1981, Yukon Party Government Leader Chris Pearson announced that progress was being made in relation to the Yukon Government negotiating directly with the federal Treasury Board for its annual budget rather than negotiating with DIAND. The Yukon Party achieved another “first ever” when Chris Pearson made a presentation to the Parliamentary Committee on Indian Affairs and Northern Development. This appearance marked the first time an elected Government Leader had ever presented fiscal and legislative concerns to the federal Committee which was responsible for reviewing the Yukon’s budget and any federal legislation affecting the Yukon. On July 7, 1981, Government Leader Chris Pearson in conjunction with George Braden, the Chair of the Executive Committee of the NWT, announced that the two territories were seeking to reach separate financing formulae with the federal government but were meeting with resistance from federal officials. These initiatives were laying important ground work for the Formula Financing Agreement that was finally reached in 1985.
Major progress was made in relation to all of the foregoing objectives while the Yukon Party Government was often engulfed in controversy. There had been four resignations from Cabinet, allegations of conflict of interest, and other charges. The Yukon Party Government was operating in a new super-charged, politically partisan environment with all of the political parties as well as the media attempting to learn their new respective roles. Some of the rules such as conflict of interest guidelines had to be developed. Klondike MLA Meg McCall, Minister of Health and Human Resources and Minister of Education, summed up the situation perhaps the best when she stated on November 23, 1981 in debate on Motion #12: “As Yukon’s first fully elected government, with yet another year in which to achieve more, we stand on a remarkable record. Remarkable in that, despite the ups and downs of inexperience, the achievements are undeniable, and were not attempted by previous governments. Time will look kindly on the very solid foundation this Government has built for the future of Yukon.” The first Yukon Party Government, despite being engulfed in considerable political controversy, had successfully met the challenge of contending with the introduction of party politics and operating in a partisan environment.