Including The Elders’ Statement
By Danielle Bazinet
Going to the Yukon turned me into one of ‘those people.’ You know, the ones who can’t stop talking about their “life changing trip.”
Hear me out.
We left Calgary in May and headed to Whitehorse, in the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council, to learn about Modern Treaties and the Law. We learned about the making of modern treaties in the Yukon, about their implementation, and about how they are interpreted by all parties involved – by Canada, by First Nations, and by the courts. We read Final Agreements, Constitutions, and Self-Government Agreements. We looked at key cases about the interpretation of modern treaties and discussed important upcoming cases for Indigenous Sovereignty at the Supreme Court. We learned about UNDRIP, and brainstormed model legislation to implement it.
But that was the least of it.
Going to the Yukon – actually being on the land and meeting the people who are implementing the treaties – was the real learning. It was meeting the people of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and being invited in with ceremony. It was listening to frank discussions and entreaties to have the Elders’ Statement included as part of the Final Agreement. It was Elder Mary Jane Johnson from Kluane First Nation introducing herself by anchoring herself in her land and her grandmothers and the women who birthed them. It was meeting retired Justice Veale and listening to his personal history of modern treaties and his humanist, practical approach to treaty interpretation. It was the day we went to court and felt the grief and frustration in a criminal justice system that still disproportionately targets Indigenous people. It was Shadelle Chambers and Erika Tizya-Tramm and the Senior Officials of Champagne and Aishihik First Nation. It was every person we met and every step we took on the land.
We went to learn about modern treaties, but more than that, we learned about the importance of listening, of imagining a better future, and of working with First Nations to make the treaty relationship a meaningful partnership.
Treaty shouldn’t be about arguing over interpretation or getting the upper hand in negotiations. It’s about being better people, respecting the other party in decision making, and being a good partner in a relationship. The language of treaties can be theoretical, but it is people who are affected by that language who are putting it into action every day.
The time we spent together outside of class was just as valuable. When the professors told us during the info session that it would be “rustic accommodations,” they weren’t lying. In both Whitehorse and the research station we slept cheek by jowl. We all shared one kitchen, which made for a busy breakfast time before classes. But it was this closeness that allowed us to form tight friendships in such a short time. Walking to the classroom along the river in Whitehorse, discussing new ideas along with dinner plans, staying up late in the common room, talking about cases and recruit and relationships – these moments are as important to me as our “classroom” learning. We were learning the importance of community while forming our own.
In the end, I know each of us came out of the course with a different focus. We all connected with different aspects of the learning, and that is the strength of the course. I recognize now, more than ever, that the treaty relationship is multi-layered. It requires work at all levels, from land-use planning to child and family services. No matter what area of law we practice, we can all make a difference. We must.
Looking back on the course, most of all, I am grateful for the people. To all the people in the Yukon who welcomed us like family, who took time to talk to us openly and honestly – I hope we can live up to your hopes and do justice to your knowledge. To my classmates who came on this journey with me, who opened up and shared their experiences – thank you. I love you all. To the profs who put so much work into creating the class and shepherding us all through it – you have created something beautiful. If you’re looking for TAs for the class next year, I know of twelve people who would love to take the job. Together preferably.
So, at the risk of being obnoxious, I’ll say it again, “I went on a trip to the Yukon, and it changed my life.”