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Remembering Elijah Smith, father of Yukon land claims, 30 years on

·3 min read
Yukon Indigenous leader Elijah Smith in an undated photo. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations - image credit)
Yukon Indigenous leader Elijah Smith in an undated photo. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations - image credit)

Thirty years after his father Elijah Smith died, his son Steve Smith says his father would be proud that the vision in the document that defines his legacy still resonates today.

His father, who died in Oct. 1991, was the first Chairman of the Council for Yukon Indians and the first President of the Yukon Native Brotherhood. But he is perhaps best known as the father of modern day land claims in the Yukon.

In 1973, Elijah Smith led a delegation to Ottawa to present Together Today for our Children Tomorrow to then prime minister Pierre Trudeau.

His son Steve, who followed in his father's political footsteps and is Chief of Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, points to one part of it in particular that spells out that only an Indigenous person can understand what it means to be Indigenous, and if solutions are to be found that will work, then it is the Indigenous Peoples that must find them

"We're rediscovering that," Smith said during a recent interview on CBC's Mid-Day Cafe.

WATCH | Elijah Smith brings position paper to Ottawa

"I think he would have been really proud of the fact that more and more of us are taking on the responsibility to ensure that our people continue to move ahead and continue to come back to our place in society as a whole."

Smith described how his father's experience fighting in WWII affected his outlook.

"His war experience showed him equality is just not that far away," he said.

"He saw we all bled the same coloured blood — we all died the same, we all lived the same.

"So coming back to the Yukon, was like a picture of seeing I think his people continually being marginalized by society at the time and then hearing from elders I think about like how we have to live by rules by other people. And a lot of those people had never set foot or even ever heard of the Yukon."

Smith was a bit of a reluctant leader at first. He was elected chief after someone else put his name forward without him knowing.

"He was quite angry," his son said.

"The next day he came back and said, 'So what does this job entail?' And that was the start to everything."

It launched a career that would see a school and a federal building in Whitehorse named after him.

His son, though, remembers him as a kind person who always found time to be with his family.

Smith also recalls scenes of his father and other leaders playing cards in his family home, or his father — an avid hockey fan — yelling at the TV.

Family, Smith said, is at the core of who his people are — and his father knew it.

"He always referred to this, the biggest thing we can do is ensure our kids have full bellies at the end of the night. And back in the day, they didn't really. A lot of kids were suffering," he said.

When he was called on to lead, his son said his father started to think about the direction he wanted to take.

"Not long after that, he really did start working … for today," he said.

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