Hunting the Northern Character

Canadian politicians, like many of their circumpolar counterparts, brag about their country's "Arctic Identify" or "northern character", but what do they mean, exactly? These southern perspectives often fail to capture northern realities. During decades of service as a legislator, mediator, and negotiator, Tony Penikett witnessed a. new northern consciousness grow out of the challenges of the Cold War, climate change, land rights struggles, and the boom and bust of resource megaprojects. His lively account of clashes and accommodations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders not only traces the footsteps of his hunt for a northern identity but tells the story of an Arctic that the world does not yet know. 

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Arctic genesis by Tony penikett


In 1867, the United States purchased Alaska from Russia. Nowadays, Alaskans would strongly object to such a “sale” – as would Yukoners, Nunavummiut, and Greenlanders in similar circumstances. In the 21st century, northern peoples have found their voices, something the global south does not yet understand. Ólafur Ragnar Grimmson, former president of Iceland, observes that particularly in the federal states – the United States, Russia, Denmark, and Canada – capital cities exist at the greatest physical and psychological distance from their Arctic regions.[i]With that in mind, let me offer a distinctly northern Canadian perspective, including both an historical view and some speculation on the fundamental policy question of Indigenous-Settler relations.

We recognize the Mediterranean Sea as the birthplace of Western civilization: Greek philosophy, Arab arithmetic, Roman law, and notions of imperialism and empire later inherited by Spain and other European powers in their “conquest” of the Americas. This conquest involved the enslavement and slaughter of millions of Indigenous Americans. 

Like the Mediterranean, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land, and a region alive with innovation. An outstanding question in Arctic policy has been whether the Arctic States and world powers might repeat this historic nightmare in the Americas on the shores of the Arctic Ocean. 

One can imagine at least three possible futures for the Arctic: assimilation, annihilation or accommodation. Could colonization and globalization turn the northern polar region into a poor imitation of the global south? Perhaps. Could the climate crisis that is already uprooting coastal communities and shifting fish and game populations make Arctic residents its first fatalities? No. Or might Arctic Indigenous villages, Settler cities and regional governments forge syncretic accommodations to create a new community of Arctic communities? 

Let us hope so. 



Historically, the outside world viewed the Arctic as a vast empty space full of little but snowdrifts and polar bears, yet rich with untapped resources. For centuries, the Arctic has been the locus for dreams of instant riches: Aleutian sea otter pelts, Beaufort whales, nuggets of Klondike gold, and deep-sea drill rigs. For southerners, this dream of Arctic bounty awaits them still. 

The Arctic’s harsh environment once prevented corporations from plundering all of its rich natural resources. Now, the melting of the polar icecap opens the Northern Sea Route and the Northwest Passages to exploitation by southern trading nations.

Arctic maps show only tiny communities dotting the white ice, but the dots’ inhabitants have different perspectives on those cartographic points. For northerners, the Arctic is home. Outsiders who come north to get rich quick, the locals label “boomers.” Throughout modern Arctic history, outsiders called the shots. Nowadays, Northern peoples, “lifers” especially, demand fair shares of any developments and the last word on major economic decisions.

I. Out of the Mediterranean

The Mediterranean Sea was the birthplace of Western civilization. Greeks founded the fields of science, philosophy and mathematics. Universities still teach the philosophies of Aristotle, Plato and Socrates. Greeks invented democracy, and also the practice of rhetoric and dialogue. Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi learned from and expanded upon Greek mathematicians Euclid, Pythagoras, and Thales. Algebra comes from an Arab word “al- jabir,” and we all use “Arabic numerals: 0, 1, 2, 3....[ii]

Even after Greece fell under Roman rule, Rome exported Greek learning to the far corners of the Empire. Centuries later, the Italian Renaissance rediscovered classical Greek ideas and Roman notions of conquest and empire.[iii]Then, in 1492, Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailor in the employ of Spain’s monarchs, arrived in the Americas. So began the conquest and colonization of the New World.

II. To the Americas 

When Columbus returned from his first voyage to the Americas in the spring of 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued an edict donating the New World to Spain’s monarchs. In rewarding Ferdinand and Isabella for the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Iberia,[iv]the pope prayed that the New World’s “barbarous nations be overthrown and brought faith itself.”[v] For Indigenous Americans, the pope’s hope meant slaughter, slavery, and continental smallpox epidemics.[vi]This “clash of civilizations”[vii] or cultures triggered the burning of Aztec writings, the looting of Mayan temples and Inca regicide. 

None of this happened without debate. The Dominican cleric Bartolomé de las Casas loudly protested the brutality of Hernán Cortés’ conquest of Mexico. While millions died at Conquistador hands, Las Casas tirelessly petitioned the Spanish monarch Charles V to intervene. In 1550, the king finally referred arguments about the morality of the Conquest to a judicial inquiry. Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda, a Catholic intellectual, defended Cortés’s savagery by invoking Aristotle’s theory of “natural slavery” to describe Indigenous Americans as “inferior to the Spaniards as infants to adults and women to men.”[viii]In rebuttal, Las Casas questioned how a pope with only spiritual powers could grant temporal powers over Mexico and Peru to a Spanish monarch. He passionately argued that, before the conquest, Amerindian Nations lived in great cities, with their own kings, laws and judges. Sadly, the Valladolid tribunal failed to reach any conclusion and a legend of Indigenous governmental incompetence took root. However, historians now realize that when Cortés levelled Tenochtitlan in 1521, the Aztec capital was perhaps the largest city in the world.[ix] In the Caribbean, Columbus had discovered a Garden of Eden.[x] For Indigenous populations, the Conquistador invasion unleashed by Pope Alexander VI turned it into a living hell. 

Following an Indigenous “uprising” led by Ottawa warrior-genius Pontiac, England’s King George III issued the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which affirmed: “the several Nations or Tribes of Indians ... who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of ... their Hunting Grounds.”[xi] Thomas Jefferson responded that “The English King has ...endeavored to bring to the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction...”[xii] Less excitable, George Washington saw the Proclamation merely as a “temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians...”.[xiii] 

Nevertheless, in consequence of the Royal Proclamation, the United States negotiated hundreds of Indian treaties, almost all of which were subsequently violated by federal authorities.[xiv] Canada followed a similar path in the 19th and 20th centuries with a series of “numbered treaties,” reserves or reservations on marginal lands and, therefore, ensuring nearly permanent poverty for most Indigenous inhabitants. 

III. Rationalizers and revisionists 

Enlightenment intellectuals rationalized the conquest of the Americas. John Locke, an investor in a Carolina colony trading Indian slaves, argued that a colonizer earned the right to take Indigenous lands by “improving”[xv] the soil[xvi] with his labour.[xvii] Adam Smith added that, as nomads, Indians could not actually own land.[xviii] In 1832, Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Indian Nations’ “relation to the United States resembles that of a ward to his guardian.”[xix] Not farmers or Nations or citizens, America downgraded its original peoples to dependents or children. 

Old ideas die hard. In 1937, Winston Churchill declared: "I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America… by the fact that a stronger race...has come in and taken their place."[xx] 

What historian Alfred W. Crosby called “the Columbian Exchange”[xxi] between the Old World and the New involved massive swaps of foods, flora, fauna, trade goods – and also germs. This was not fair trade; Aztec gold and Inca silver financed the industrial revolution in Europe. Locke believed the Indian hunter “owned” the deer he had killed, while the Indian Nation viewed game as the common property of the community that depended on its meat, skin and bones.[xxii] Thus Locke’s idea of “improvement” enriched America’s landlords but impoverished Indigenous communities. 

In the 20th Century, scholars began to question the shaky foundations of Indigenous-Settler relations. Revisionists such as Charles Mann argued that pre-1491 populations of America were farmers and landowners, not landless nomads.[xxiii] Anthropologist Ronald Wright noted that surviving Indigenous nations trod paths of syncretism, routes that allowed a minority community to borrow useful features of the dominant society, (cars, hospitals, iPhones) in order to guarantee the survival of their core cultural values, i.e. land, language, and law.[xxiv] 

Though mainstream society is increasingly aware of the impacts of colonization on Indigenous Peoples, the ideologies of Locke and Smith still prevail. Reconciling rival Settler-Indigenous worldviews remains unfinished business, the resolution of which will undoubtedly shape the Arctic’s future. 

IV. The Arctic: three possible futures? 

Colonization in the Arctic began centuries ago, and eight nation states now assert sovereignty over the homelands of the region’s Indigenous peoples: Athabascans (Dene), Aleut, Inuit, Sámi, and numerous Indigenous groups scattered around modern Russia. Inuit homelands include northern Canada, Greenland (Denmark), Russia, and the United States. The Sámi still occupy the Arctic regions of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. Northern Dene largely live below the tree line in Alaska and Northern Canada. Only in Greenland do Indigenous People, the Inuit, represent a large majority. Is the North American Arctic destined to relive the old Conquistador story?

Consider three possible futures for the Arctic:
1. The Arctic comes to resemble the  South. As portrayed by Laurence C. Smith in The World in 2050,[xxv] the Far North becomes more and more like the south. Smith observed that landscapes transformed by globalization and climate change will open new arenas for Arctic Ocean navigation, propel major population shifts and new agricultural opportunities, and open the door for new mines, pipelines, and environmental despoliation. While “boomers” may come north to profit from climate change, northern “lifers” work to adapt to the climate events while building community. On the frontline of Arctic changes, boomers and lifers will debate their respective futures. 

2. Climate catastrophes cause even greater calamities: Many political leaders may avert their eyes, but climate catastrophes present dark prospects for the planet. None of climate scientist Robert Correll’s data surprises Arctic residents – although they feel relatively powerless to resist the destructive effects.[xxvi]Liberal media in southern cities tend to paint Indigenous northerners (including polar bears) as the inevitable victims of the climate crisis. But if climate catastrophes breed global economic collapse, massive extinctions, population exoduses, or even thermonuclear war, might Arctic peoples be the only human communities resilient enough to endure? Northerners live far from target cities but know how to live off the land: to hunt, fish, forage and build shelters with materials at hand. Arctic communities might then be the only survivors of climate catastrophes.  

3. An Arctic community shaped by northerners: Can an Arctic community of tiny communities truly shape the Arctic’s future? What has actually happened in the last 50 years? Has the pivotal issue of Indigenous-colonizer relationship evolved beyond colonial patterns? Arctic residents still struggle with issues such poverty, homelessness and suicide – problems Indigenous leaders attribute to the intergenerational effects of colonization – but they are facing these challenges. Are northerners breaking trail in new directions? Yes. Over the past 50 years, the Arctic region has been an important laboratory for inter-societal conflict resolution. On the borders of the Arctic Ocean, might we even imagine the birth of a new post-colonial political order? 

Mediterranean 2.0

Out of sight of most southern observers, beyond the gaze of global media and far from the thoughts of world leaders, Arctic communities have learned from America’s tragic histories. For the last two generations, they have been determined not to repeat that misery. In this pursuit, Arctic leaders, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, have been highly inventive in governance, diplomacy, and philosophy. Among their innovations: 

· 1970: A thousand years after the first Olympic Games, the first Arctic Winter games at Yellowknife revived Inuit games (one-foot-high kick and two-foot-high kick), and Dene sports (hand games and pole push). Of course, today’s competition also includes hockey, cross-country skiing, and snowshoe races.

· 1971: When explorers found oil in Alaska, oil giants plotted pipeline routes on state maps but Alaska Natives told them to stop, saying, “You do not own the land.”[xxvii] Expeditiously, the United States Congress passed the Alaska Native Claims Act, the most generous treaty in U.S. history. It provided 37,000 Indigenous Alaskans with a billion dollars and 178,000 kms2 of land, plus a template for what followed.

· 1975: Cree and Inuit leaders signed the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement, Canada’s first modern treaty. Over the next 40 years, twenty more treaties followed, which covered the northern 40 percent of Canada’s land mass. Indigenous co-management of fish and wildlife in the region became a key feature of these treaties, which embody reformed stewardship priorities that privilege conservation and subsistence over sports and commercial harvests. 

· 1979: Greenland achieved Home Rule by 1979, Self-Government in 2009, and may become the Arctic’s first Indigenous nation-state. The Arctic region has long suffered great power competition but northerners will tell the world “enough”; nowadays, the United States can no more purchase Greenland than China can buy Iceland.

· March, 1987: Norway’s Gro Harlem Bruntland’s UN report, Our Common Future, promoted the concept of “Sustainable Development” - development that balances economic and environmental needs.

· October, 1987: In a speech at Murmansk, Mikhail Gorbachev proposed that the Arctic region should cease being a Cold War battleground and become instead a “Zone of Peace.” 

· 1989: Following Gorbachev’s cue, Finnish president, Mauno Koivisto launched the “Finnish Initiative,” which ultimately became the Arctic Environmental Protection Strategy (AEPS)— to coordinate protection of the Arctic ecosystem. 

· 1992: Yukon First Nations, the Yukon Territorial Government and Canada concluded the country’s first Aboriginal Self-Government Agreements, which recognized regional rather than merely local government powers for Indigenous treaty signatories. 

· 1996: at Yellowknife, Inuit leader Mary Simon negotiated “Permanent Participant” status for six international Indigenous organizations in the new Arctic Council forum created by the Ottawa Declaration.[xxviii]

2001: The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants,[xxix] signed following Inuit and Sámi lobbying campaigns, protects Arctic food sources from contamination by airborne chemicals from southern industrial centers. 

· 2005: Norway adopted the Finnmark Act, modelled on northern Canadian experience, which authorizes Finnmark County and Sámi parliament co-management of regional lands and resources. 

· 2008: Edward Vajda, a Western Washington University linguist, visited the Yenisei River to explore links between Siberia’s Ket language and the Na-Dené languages of North America’s sub-Arctic. 

· 2019: Russia floated an Arctic nuclear power station. Launched from Murmansk, itsailed 5,000 km to Chukotka in the Russian Far East, where it will serve remote Arctic communities.[xxx].

· Three Nordic states and Sámi leaders are negotiating a Sámi Convention, potentially the first international treaty to be signed by an Arctic Indigenous people. 

· By 2020, Norway’s sovereign wealth fund will grow into a $1 trillion oil investment pool designed to build a post-oil economy.

· Meanwhile, artists and writers share their Arctic stories with the world: Alva Aalto, Robert Arthur Alexie, Pitseolak Ashoona, Pierre Berton, Gerd Bjorhovde, Olafur Eliasson,

Bjørk Guðmundsdóttir, Maxim Gorgy, Edvard Grieg, Ted Harrison, Aka Høegh, Peter Høeg, Arnaldur Indridason, Ingmar Bergman, Aki Kaurismäki, Jewel Kilcher, Zacharias Kunuk, Halldór Laxness, Jack London, Finn Lynge, Henning Mankell, Mads Mikkelsen, Tahmoh Penikett, Kirill Shamalov, Jean Sibelius, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Viljalmur Stefansson, Andrey Zvyagintsev, and others.

VI. Arctic Genesis?
Against a global backdrop of rising income inequality, raging white nationalism, China’s Uighur “reeducation” camps, Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an American president’s embrace of the world’s brutal autocrats, Canada’s “blackface” embarrassment, Mexican border walls, Muslim bans, plastic pollution, police brutality, and political denial of the climate crisis,[xxxi] might we yet envision an Arctic alternative? 

Dare we imagine, on the shores of the Arctic Ocean—a threatened and mutating environment—the birth of a new consciousness based on the following: reconciliation between Indigenous and Settler communities; democratic debate and dialogue; social peace; a much longer view of immigration issues,[xxxii]sustainable development; and climate adaption? And like the Mediterranean, could the Arctic become the basis for a global paradigm shift? Of course, Arctic communities still face the horrors of addiction, environmental degradation, family violence, homelessness and suicide[xxxiii]— according to the Dene and Inuit, the inter-generational effects of colonization — but they are addressing them. Based on northerners’ experiments and innovations over the last half-century, might we imagine something akin to an Arctic genesis?


[i] Ólafur Ragnar Grimmson in Tony Penikett, Reconciliation: First Nation Treaty Making in British Columbia, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2006), 2-3

[ii] Mustafa Akyol, “Who’s Afraid of Arabic Numerals?" New York Times, June 4, 2019 

[iii] “Whoever conquers a free town and does not demolish it commits a great error and may expect to be ruined himself,” attributed to Niccolo Machiavelli.

[iv] Erna Paris, The End of Days, Prometheus Books, 1995

19. (That Spain was, for centuries, the most tolerant nation in Europe, and subsequently became the most zealously intolerant, is the heart of this book.)

[v] Pope Alexander VI, The Papal Bull Inter Caetera, May 4, 1493

[vi] Tony Penikett, Reconciliation: First Nation Treaty Making, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2006), 18

[vii] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996) 

[viii] Juan Ginés de Sepulveda, On the Reasons for the Just War among the Indians, 1547

[ix] Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire from Columbus to Magellan (New York: Random
House, 2003), 490

[x] Laurence Bergreen, Columbus: The Four Voyages 1492-1504, (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), 71. (from his diary entry for Sunday, October 21, 1492)

[xi] George III, Royal Proclamation of 1763

[xii] Thomas R Berger, Northern Frontier, Northern Homeland: Report of the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry, vol. I. Electronic. Ottawa: Supply and Services Canada, 1977.

[xiii] See letter from George Washington to William Crawford, 17 September 1767,

[xiv] Tony Penikett, Reconciliation: First Nation Treaty Making in British Columbia, (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2006), 49-67.

[xv] John Locke, “Of Property,” The Second Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1948., 1689).

[xvi] James Tully, Strange multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an age of diversity, (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 74- 75. 

[xvii] Marilyn Waring, If Women Counted, (San Francisco, Harper & Row, 1988), 30. 

[xviii] Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, (London: W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776), 459-60

[xix] Cherokee Nation v. Georgia 30 U.S. 1 (1832)

[xx] Elia Zureik, Israel’s Colonial Project in Palestine: Brutal Pursuit, (New York: Routledge, 2016), 213. Quoted from Winston Churchill’s 1937 testimony to William Robert Wellesley Peel’s Royal Commission on the British Mandate in Palestine.

[xxi] Alfred W. Crosby, The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492, (New York: Praeger, 2003).

[xxii] John Locke, “Of Property,” The Second Treatise of Civil Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration, (Oxford :B. Blackwell, 1948., 1689).

[xxiii] Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, (New York: Vintage Books, 2006).

[xxiv] Ronald Wright, Stolen Continents: Conquest and Resistance in the Americas, (Penguin Canada, 2009), 150.

[xxv] Laurence C. Smith, The World in 2050, (New York: Dutton/Penguin Group, 2010).

[xxvi] Jonathan Watts, “The Arctic spring is starting 16 days earlier than a decade ago, study finds,” The Guardian, March 2, 2018.

[xxvii] Tony Penikett, Hunting the Northern Character, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2017), 44.

[xxviii] The Arctic Council is a high level intergovernmental forum to provide a means for promoting cooperation, coordination and interaction among the Arctic States, with the involvement of the Arctic Indigenous communities...

[xxix] The Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants is a global treaty to protect human health and the environment from chemicals that remain intact in the environment for long periods… Stockholm Convention

[xxx] BBC News: “Russia floating nuclear power station sets sail across Arctic,” August 23, 2019

[xxxi] Somini Sengupta, “US Pressure Blocks Declaration on Climate Change at Arctic Talks”, The New York Times, May 7, 2019: 

[xxxii] James Tully, Strange multiplicity: Constitutionalism in an age of diversity, Cambridge University Press, 1995, 74-7

[xxxiii] Helen Epstein,“The Highest Suicide Rate in the World,” New York Review

OCTOBER 10, 2019 ISSUE: Too Many People: Contact, Disorder, Change in an Inuit Society, 1822–2015

by Willem Rasing, with a foreword by George Wenzel

Iqaluit: Nunavut Arctic College Media, 558 pp., CAN$32.95 (paper)

The Return of the Sun: Suicide and Reclamation Among Inuit of Arctic Canada

by Michael J. Kral

Oxford University Press, 192 pp., $45.00 (paper) 

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 By Tony Penikett, in  Polar Research and Policy Initiative  

As the Territory’s minister responsible for Yukon First Nations treaty negotiations and the Umbrella Final Agreement of 1990, I have been haunted by two facts.

The 1789 “We the people…” Constitution of the United States, the most powerful of nations, is only 12-pages long.[i] It is a statement of high principles, well written and read at some point by every student in every school in that country.

By contrast, Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement between Yukon First Nations, the Government of Canada and the Yukon Territory runs to 292 pages, which means that few people will ever read it. Consequently, few students have any idea of the principles behind this foundation accord for 21st-century Yukon. 

In time, this small readership could become a huge problem. Years from now, Canadians might elect governments determined to undermine the Yukon treaty, and if few Yukoners have ever studied the UFA’s detailed text and even fewer understand its core principles, who then will defend the ideas and values it embodies?

A generation after the negotiation of the agreement, hardly any of the people employed in its implementation had any involvement in its negotiation. In other words, they may have no idea of the three parties’ intentions. That too could be a problem.

This problem is not unique to the Yukon. Glassco Fellow Heather Bourassa has written about implementation challenges with NWT’s Sahtu Dene treaty and “a lack of communication between leadership and the Community.”[ii]

Based on the example of the US Constitution, I now wish that, after twenty years of negotiations, before proceeding to the final agreement stage, the three parties to the Yukon land claims agreement – a document now protected under Section 35 of the Canada’s Constitution Act – had shown the wisdom to lock ourselves up in a mountain retreat for a few days to draft a preamble to the UFA describing the underlying principles of the agreement we had just reached.

Older Yukoners may remember how radical the agreement seemed at the time, or that Yukon’s Self-Government Agreements were the first of their kind in Canada. Thirty years later, parts of the UFA have in some ways been overtaken by both court decisions and public policy reforms. Nevertheless, the principles agreed to by Yukon First Nations, Canada and Yukon remain in force. The New Testament is an update but the essential Ten Commandments were embedded in the Old Testament.

Before it was too late, I wondered if it might be time that the UFA’s three teams of surviving negotiators met again and document its key principles, shared values and common goals. To my surprise, many Yukoners shared my concern, among them former Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Judy Gingell, the current Grand Chief Peter Johnston, former federal negotiators Tim Koepke and Elizabeth Hanson, and also Yukon negotiators Barry Stuart and Doug McArthur, among others.

As a result, we invited the veteran negotiators – a finite group – to gather at a round table in Whitehorse on 18-19 January  2020 to discuss and draft a short Plain-English statement of the UFA’s core ideas. Of course, the UFA authors from 1990 would lead the discussion. Our purpose was not to renegotiate the UFA or invent new “principles” but rather to discover or rediscover those at the heart of the agreement.

Yukoners need a document that every elementary school student can read and understand, so another set of participants will be the note-takers or “scribes” who will hopefully craft a First Principles statement that echoes the US constitution in its brevity and wit. The scribes’ duty will be to respectfully listen, faithfully record and skillfully edit participant ideas. To avoid academic, bureaucratic and legalistic prose, we have recruited for scribe’s team journalists who actually covered the 1990 UFA negotiations.

This First Principles Project is a private, non-government, invitation-only initiative. Every participant has volunteered his or her time and talent to this labour of love. Three former negotiators are even flying to Whitehorse for this event at their own expense.

On a few short pages, we hope to capture the UFA’s shared values, high principles and core ideas about land, sustainability, governance and the funding for education, health and justice programs. We may not complete the task in a single weekend. Still, we hope that the gathering produces a Draft Statement of UFA First Principles of enough quality to guarantee wide circulation and much constructive comments from its Yukon readers.

Our ultimate objective will be a short, highly readable statement of UFA First Principles, not a legal document but an educational aid for this generation’s students, and hopefully those of the next.

Across Canada, rather than beginning with fat binders full of manipulative mandates, future negotiations between Government and Indigenous Nations might start with honest and open exchanges about first principles.

In the Yukon, we cannot yet know if our weekend gathering will be a success but, afterwards, we will be happy to report its outcomes to any who inquire.


It is never easy to organise an unfunded volunteer event but forty-below-zero weather made things more difficult. Air Canada cancelled flights but Air North, Yukon’s regional carrier, came through. Some older invitees from remote communities were reluctant to venture out on icy roads. Yet, forty volunteers: former chiefs, chief negotiators and scribes arrived on time a ready to go to work.

Stanley Njootli opened the gathering with a prayer in Gwichin. Tim Koepke read out a long list of negotiators who had passed on over the last thirty – a sharp reminder of the urgency of our task – and the plenary circle stood for a minute’s silence in their honour. Participants in the circle then introduced and re-introduced themselves, and the organisers explained the proceedings.  

According to their varying interests, everybody would join one of four Breakout Groups. Breakout chairs were paired to represent both Indigenous and government perspectives: LAND co-chairs, Stanley Njootli from Vuntut Gwitch’in and former federal negotiator Kathleen Wood, with scribes, Jim Butler and Jocelyn Joe-Strack; GOVERNANCE co-chairs, former federal self-government negotiator Liz Hanson and Lawrence Joe from Champagne Aishihik, with scribes, Arnold Hedstrom and Chuck Tobin; ECONOMY co-chairs, Mary Jane Jim of Champagne Aishihik and former Yukon chief negotiator Doug McArthur, with scribes, Keith Halliday and Nadia Joe; RELATIONSHIPS co-chairs, Yukon chief negotiator Barry Stuart and Albert Peter from Nacho Nyak Dun, assisted by scribes, Vic Istchenko and Rhiannon Klein. Two “scribes” would assist each group, so that, at any point, one could be writing and the other editing.

Most of the invited scribes were working journalists who had reported on UFA negotiations in the late-1980s, but this older male group was supplemented by three young female scholars with interests in Indigenous issues. Among the virtues of journalists are their ability to write plain English but also to respect tight deadlines. This was evident on Saturday morning when participants arrived at 7:30am to see that Lindsay Staples, the leader of scribes, was already briefing his team.  

Before lunch, the chairs provide interim reports to the plenary circle. After a lunch sponsored by Grand Chief Peter Johnston and the Council of Yukon First Nations, which absorbed all our facility costs, participants returned to a Breakout Group. Later in the afternoon, the chairs provided further progress reports.

By early Sunday morning, it was apparent that, despite the high quality of Breakout Group reports, their stylistic differences would require heroic efforts to synthesize them into a single document, and an editors’ group came together for this chore.

Late Sunday morning, the younger scribes expressed concern that the elders were too focused on the past. So, Jocelyn Joe-Strack, with Rhiannon Klein as her note taker, led a plenary discussion about the UFA’s future, which informed the final DRAFT FPP statement.

By mid-afternoon on Sunday, the co-chairs, scribes and editors had produced a nine-page document. After some clean-up, we proposed to make this document public.

Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement took the best part of twenty years to negotiate, so the text produced over two days by the 40 @ -40° group is bound to contain imperfections. But nobody at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre that weekend thought we had penned the last word on the Yukon Treaty. Rather, we would label document a “work in progress” or Draft for public comment and discussion. So, to replace a largely unreadable 292-page legal document, Yukoners now have a short readable educational aid for this generation of Yukoners and the next. 

You can read the work-in-progress First Principles Project Report at : 

[i] The original US Constitution, beginning with the declaration “We the People” articulates principles in seven articles: the separation of powers between the legislative branch (Article 1: Congress and Senate), the Executive (Article Two: President) and (Article Three: the courts, including the Supreme Court. Articles Four, Five and Six define American federalism. Article Seven outlines ratification procedures. Since coming into force in 1789, the United States has amended the Constitution 27 times to meet the evolving needs of a modern nation state.

[ii] Heather Bourassa “How can my Community members be better engaged in local governance issues?” DRAFT, March 2019


Nation to Neighbour


Good Intentions? 

The stated intentions of government policies toward Indigenous peoples always deserve close examination. On Christopher Columbus’s return from his first voyage to the Americas in 1493, Pope Alexander VI “awarded” the New World to Spain’s rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella (Alexander VI 1493). As the world knows, for Indigenous Americans, slaughter, slavery and smallpox soon followed. University of London scientists found that this Amerindian genocide caused the reforestation of Latin America’s corn fields and, consequently, the eighteenth century’s Little Ice Age, which froze the River Thames — obviously an unintended consequence (Bodkin 2019). 

In this period, Ottawa warrior chief Pontiac, a military genius, organized a powerful Indigenous resistance against British colonization of the western Great Lakes region. In response, on October 7, 1763, England’s King George III issued the Royal Proclamation that reorganized British colonies in North America and affirmed that “the several Nations or Tribes of Indians...who live under our Protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the Possession of...their Hunting Grounds.”1 Meanwhile, the Crown negotiator Sir William Johnson wrote: “The Indians of the Ottawa Confederacy...also the Six Nations...were amused by both parties [the British and French] with stories of their upright intentions, and that they made War for the protection of the... 

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"Dotting the ice" in The Palgrave Handbook of Arctic Policy and Politics

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"Arctic security for a big small country" in The North American Arctic: Themes in Regional security

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"BRitish Columbia Treaty Commission Tic Tac Toe" in Canada- The State of the federation 2017: Federa

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In the hundred years since British Columbia joined Confederation, Canada has negotiated only one treaty in the province. A decade after signing the Nisga'a treaty, and despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, the BC Treaty Commission process had not finalized a single treaty. This impassioned book explains why.

The long answer to the question, says author Tony Penikett, is rooted in colonial history: provincial resistance, federal indifference and judicial equivocation. The short answer is that Canadian governments have wanted treaties solely on their own terms. Drawing on three decades of experience as a negotiator and a politician, Penikett argues persuasively that successful treaty making requires not only principled mandates, imaginative negotiators and skilled mediators, but also the political will to redress First Nation grievances. The treaty process in BC is ailing, this book shows clearly, and Penikett has many practical remedies to offer.

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