Carcross / Tagish First Nation
Community Leaders

Voices of Vision: An interview with Doris McLean

An interview with Doris McLean
Audio file

Doris McLean is an outspoken leader and advocate whose work has touched many aspects of Yukon life. Doris, whose Tagish name is Guna, has both Tlingit and Tagish ancestry and belongs to the Dakl'aweidi (killer whale) clan. Doris has worked tirelessly to help preserve the Tagish language and restore Aboriginal rights. Doris has been a dedicated volunteer with many groups including the RCMP Citizens on Patrol, the 2000 Arctic Winter Games and the Yukon International Storytelling Festival. Doris was Chief of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation from 1988 to 1992, and provided a strong voice on self-government. Doris served as the Yukon Legislative Assembly's first Canadian Aboriginal woman Sergeant-at-Arms. The Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal is among her accolades.



DORIS MCLEAN: Hi. My name is Doris McLean. My maiden name was Johns, and I'm from the Carcross area. I was born in the Tagish and Carcross First Nation and lived there until I left there and went off to school, and then came back and got married and raised two daughters.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): She might not have mentioned it but Doris McLean is also the Sergeant-at-Arms in the Yukon Legislative Assembly and she served on the Executive Council of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She is part of what makes Yukon a world leader in modern day aboriginal self-government. In 1993, when Canada, Yukon and what is now the Council of Yukon First Nations signed a document called the Umbrella Final Agreement, and more commonly called the UFA, the stage was set for First Nations across the territory to move toward a modern vision of aboriginal self-government.

DORIS MCLEAN: It was exciting to be young, to hear the potentials of things that were coming, things that we had to do and the work, you know? And we all had a common goal in those days.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): Almost 30 years later Doris McLean is seeing how her work on implementation of self-government and land claims agreements is bringing those documents to life. I'm Meagan Perry, and early in 2011 Doris McLean agreed to sit down with me in her kitchen. We talked about self-government and land claims implementation and what it has meant for her, her First Nation, Yukon and Canada. We started by talking about her childhood.

MEAGAN PERRY: Where were you going to school?

DORIS MCLEAN: I went to school in Alaska, Alberta and the Yukon.

MEAGAN PERRY: Wow. That's a lot of places.

DORIS MCLEAN: Yes it is. Well see, we were raised as Non-Status, you know, First Nation. And so I had a sister lived in Skagway so I went down and lived with her while I went to school – high school. And then I had another sister that lived in Alberta so I went and lived with her for a while. So that's why I was out there [laughs] in these different areas.

MEAGAN PERRY: Yes, oh, that's great. So you've seen stuff all over the place.


MEAGAN PERRY: That's great. For listeners who might not be familiar, we're talking about land claims and self-government implementation in these podcasts. But for listeners who might not be familiar with Carcross, can you paint me a picture of that town when you started your work towards self-government and land claims?


MEAGAN PERRY: What did it look like back then?

DORIS MCLEAN: Well Carcross is a unique little town. It's really nestled in the best part of the Yukon, I figure. It has its water, its mountains, its – the scenery. We had fish. We had all kinds of different areas of hunting. Not too far from there we have the Dall sheep, which is unique for this part of the country. We had – the town itself looks like a little western town, you know, with the little houses and the river flowing through and a rickety old bridge that went across at one point in time where all us kids, as we grew up, fished for herring there. And in later years – in the 60s I think – there were two mines that entered our country there, and that was the Arctic and Venus Mines. And they left their mark behind, like the pollution of the water, and a lot of the fish died – the herring I'm talking about. And it turned out, you know, not a good idea. And this is one of the things I think that First Nations have a fear of, is mining that come in and leave their mark and don't clean up after themselves and just pollute the land and leave it as is, you know? And most of the time we don't benefit from it. We don't get the jobs, we don't – you know, somebody else gets the royalties and things like that. So – you know, that's really been in contention amongst First Nation people for many years.

MEAGAN PERRY: And so tell me about how you became involved in working towards self-government and land claims agreements and their implementation? Was that part of it?


DORIS MCLEAN: Yes it was. You know, growing up – going around Carcross as a young child I had the opportunity to visit homes with an anthropologist – her name was Kitty McClellan – and I really had the opportunity to learn the history of our people – you know, their migration stories, how they got there and the things that they did and all the things that happened to them, like all the diseases that came about and wiped out a lot of our people, and then the army coming in, and then building of the Alaska Highway – and all these things that affected our people, you know? And so many of them didn't have that choice to say no, that's enough, you're not going to do anything more.

So as a young person when I was in my teens the first Native organization started. It was called the Yukon Indian Advancement Association and it was started by the religious people, spear-headed by the Baha'is of the Yukon at the time. And we were teenagers – myself, my cousin Annie and a bunch of us. We used to attend this along with our uncle George Sydney and our aunt Angela Sydney, and different ones. We were teenagers and we'd come to these meetings and hear what was going on and the possibility of being in charge of yourself. You know, for a young teenager, 15 years old and just wanting to, you know, come out into this world with all these new ideas, and that was a beginning, you know?

And then after that – out of that Yukon Indian Advancement Association came the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre. And I got involved in there as a teenager too. We'd attend a lot of their programmes. And as I got older I sat on their board of directors and became a staff member of Skookie's. I was their programme director, you know, when my children were babies, and planning programmes. And out of that Skookum Jim Friendship Centre the friends would meet and they would start these other organizations like the Yukon – YANSI, we used to be called in those days for Non-Status and Brotherhood and, you know, all these different organizations sprung out of the Skookum Jim Friendship Centre.

MEAGAN PERRY: So YANSI was the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians, right? And the Brotherhood was the Yukon Native Brotherhood.

DORIS MCLEAN: At the time.

MEAGAN PERRY: Wow, it sounds like such powerful stuff.


DORIS MCLEAN: Oh! It was exciting. It was exciting to be young, to hear the potential of things that were coming, things that we had to do and the work, you know? And we all had a common goal in those days, you know? And they were truly the trailblazers, our Elders, at the time, you know? At the time there was Johnnie Johns and Joe Jacquot and Ted Geddes and Elijah Smith and, you know, the old workhorses, the old people. And they just spurred on the younger ones to go for it, you know, and talked at many, many gatherings and campfire talks and meeting together and spurring us on – like my uncle Johnnie Johns and my father just made us get involved, you know? And mainly the girls, you know, because the girls, more or less, are the first teachers of the rest of mankind, you know. And they got, like my uncle said, you girls have to take your rightful place in this society. So myself and my sister Shirley along with our uncle Johnnie Johns and our cousin Pete Sydney and a few others from the Carcross area got involved.

The Chief at the time was Dan Johnson and he was for the Status – you know, at that time there were two types of First Nations in the Yukon. There was the Status and Non-Status. Then came a time when we amalgamated and realized to go anywhere we had to be gathered, to be united and, you know, go for it. And that's exactly what happened. You knew something was better out there for you.

Carcross has a great history. We had Skookum Jim, you know, who was the first person that discovered gold in the Klondike along with George Carmack and his sister Kate Carmack and his nephew Patsy Henderson and Dawson Charlie. They were the ones that discovered the gold, and the influx of the people came in after. We had some, for instance, great game guides and outfitters come out of Carcross. We had some of the wonderful old non-Native people there like Tommy Brooks and Mr Golden and Ernie Butterfield – you know, some of these wonderful old people. And they were the trail blazers. They were the ones that helped us. Like my first encounter with that non First Nation really on a one-to-one basis really would be Kitty McClellan who was wonderful, who was loving, who was kind and, you know, that was my introduction to another race. And when you find someone that came in to your community like that, as a young child helped you form and shape and think and want different things. Those are the people that come in.


DORIS MCLEAN: So we never had prejudiced, negative people come in to our little community to begin with. We met them in later years, but we kind of knew how to stick up for ourselves by then, you know?


MEAGAN PERRY: Right, well that's – yes, I wanted to ask you –

DORIS MCLEAN: That's Carcross!

MEAGAN PERRY: That's Carcross. Now Yukon First Nations had a long history of being part of fighting for land claims and self-government implementation. So how do you feel about being part of that process?

DORIS MCLEAN: Proud and disappointed in many things, because you know what you visioned and what our Elders visioned has taken a long time to come about because a lot of the things that you're working out is this feeling proud about yourself, knowing that our people can do it, having trust in each other, having equality and unity amongst our self. You know, and then to see some of these kids that graduate from university, some that are becoming doctors, lawyers, you know – that's a proud moment, you know. And even someone that comes around to knowing who they are, where they come from, their migration stories and their culture and things like this. Just knowing who they are their self. And I think the best thing that happened to us First Nations of the Yukon was self-government.

MEAGAN PERRY: Implementation of self-government is a process that requires this long-term commitment and it requires participation from all parties. What areas stand out for you in being especially important in your work on self-government?

DORIS MCLEAN: I think what is very important is that we build capacity amongst our people. We send them off to school and they get their education. And basically we need to come around to the fact that we need all our members to help us build capacity amongst ourselves because we know that we can do this, we know that we can run self-government. And you know if jealousy and envy gets in there, nobody gets anywhere. And I think a lot of things that have to happen is that we've got to build on our self esteem so we start feeling good about ourselves, you know? And when you feel good about yourself, nobody is a threat to you, not even your neighbour, your friends, your teacher – nobody.

Growing up in Carcross as a child, everybody that was in charge in Carcross, they were white. Don't mind me saying that but that's the truth. The minister was white, the postmaster was white, the storekeeper was white, the policemen were white. Everybody that was in charge appeared to be white. And, you know, after a while you got tired of all this, you know? Like I did. I'm speaking for myself when I speak. I got to thinking, well, you know? The way out of this is listening to what our Elders are saying. You get your education, you go and you work hard. Be a hard worker. And I got those work ethics from my parents, you know? My mum and dad, they were hard-working people. My mother raised nine of us children and she was always working, you know? And when we grew and when my dad got sick – my dad was a very hard worker. He worked for White Pass. He was an outfitting and, you know, game guide and hunting, and he would get off work from White Pass and, you know, worked out there in White Pass for years, really. A lot of the First Nation people of Carcross worked for White Pass. And Friday afternoon when he got off work he would take us out hunting, teaching us kids how to hunt, how to respect the animals, how to – you know, to meditate and pray before we got the animal and realize that you don't put the fish and the moose meat together because in real life they didn't run around together. That's how much respect they had for the animals that fed us.


MEAGAN PERRY: And what do you think that that tradition brings to the implementation process?

DORIS MCLEAN: Well first of all with the implementation of our agreements I think we have to first understand, because it was just certain people that understood the policies and the agreements and what they were saying. But the average Joe has to go out and learn what those agreements mean. And if there is nothing else that we learned from being out a summer camps and gathering and sharing and togetherness is to realize that we have to learn how to trust one another. And if you have no trust there, and not the ability to believe that those that are working towards this self-government are doing the best job on your behalf, then you're really losing out on your teachings – your own teachings.

MEAGAN PERRY: Mm-hmm. Now I want to go a little bit back to – throughout your life you've been involved with aboriginal-focused NGOs and organizations. How has self-government affected the way those organizations work for First Nations people in the Yukon? Do you think things have changed because of implementation?

DORIS MCLEAN: Yes. A lot has changed. I think the changes have come about when you realize that, you know, you're put on these different committees, that you're sitting there, and I think you're starting to learn the difference between the politics of the situation and the administration of something. And it takes sometimes a long time to realize those two are different matters [laughs] and we get slapped on the hands a lot of the times when we walk off that path and start micromanaging somebody that we don't even have a clue what they're supposed to be doing. So, you know, I think it's go a little further, learn some, take two steps back and start over again. Just keep on going because, you know, to build a government takes many hundreds of years and we only began.


MEAGAN PERRY: So how does it feel to look back on the years you've worked to develop self-government in the Yukon? What do you think about when you think about that?

DORIS MCLEAN: Well, I look back on the fact that we are now in charge of ourselves and we have nobody to blame but ourselves now. And we only look back to the fact that we negotiated these different policies, these different agreements and now we have to make sure that the governments don't renege on their responsibilities also, you know, because sometimes when you're sitting in the heat of negotiations everybody promises this and that way. And I think the promises go as far as the honesty of the person. When they are there with good in their heart they would feel obligated that they see these negotiations go right through to the end. And I think now that's what's happening with a lot of the First Nation government. They find that broken treaties are still being broken, and how does that change? Man has to change spiritually. That's the difference. You know?


MEAGAN PERRY: That's hard to do.

DORIS MCLEAN: That is hard to do. But, you know, it can be done. It's not hopeless, you know. They have to realize hey, somebody made this agreement. Let's follow through with it, you know? And we're in charge of our housing now. We have to work with housing. We have to make sure that our people are taken care of in a right way, in a good way. Not as a handout – we're not asking, like Elijah Smith said, a handout. We want to be in charge of ourselves, you know? And I think they still have that mentality. They want to look after us, you know?


DORIS MCLEAN: And not realize you don't need to look after us. We're partners here.

MEAGAN PERRY: Was their ever a time in the course of your work when you felt that self-government had made a breakthrough? You know, when you could clearly see that the work you were doing had a positive effect on Yukoners?


DORIS MCLEAN: No. We haven't seen the fruits of self-government yet. We're only learning. Like our First Nation, we've only been in it five years. But boy, we're way ahead of the game. I mean really. We have a wonderful, wonderful group of people that's implementing things – policy, writing policies. We have to make sure that when our children – my grandchildren – come in there, you know, they're being trained to be leaders. They're going to be going to the university. I know that for a fact. My grandson is only five years old. I know he's going to go to university. I know my granddaughter is going to go to university. I know they're going to learn how to take over self-government and run with it. They're not going to be lazy bones and, you know, want people to look after them or hand them things on a platter. Their grandma never had that or their great-grandparents, and I don't expect them to do it. And they've got to work hard. It's not easy to run your own self-government. It's not easy to have a new government in your day, you know? And we need to support our leaders. Not everybody is leaders, you know? There are followers. And the leaders are the ones that make the noise and people take notice of them, you know, when they're leaders – and they're not followers.

MEAGAN PERRY: You know, it's important for Yukon citizens to understand the UFA – the Umbrella Final Agreement – and Yukon First Nations final agreements and self-government agreements. But those are large, complicated documents. So how do you explain the agreements to Yukoners?

DORIS MCLEAN: [laughs] Well, it's a modern-day treaty. Long time ago when you were in school you learned about all these treaties and all of them that got broken and what-not and everything else. And first of all the First Nations of the Yukon gave up a lot for this self-government. A lot. I say that, you know, with all the land loss that we've had, we gave up a lot of land just to be able to pay taxes. I think, you know, with everything that was taken away from us in a sense should have compensated for all the taxes we would have paid all our lives, really – I mean when you look at land, you know. And being the first people – that were here first – it was the type of negotiations that I don't know who won in the end. Who won all this? We can say that yes, we're going to share and we're going to be equal about the land. But you take a look at, now, the Peel River. Who is going to lose out in the end?

MEAGAN PERRY: How do you explain Yukon First Nations self-government to First Nations people in other parts of Canada where it's so different?

DORIS MCLEAN: Well you know self-government requires self determination, philosophy – we have to step up to the plate in all areas. We have to do training. We have to mentor our young people – it takes courage – and be true to yourself and not copy other governments. We're not a government that comes out of England. We're not a government – we're not YTG. We're not – no government. The government we place in front of us has been developed by us, for us. And I think we have to remember there's spirituality there. Leaders have to be example in our First Nations government. They have to be examples. They have to walk the talk. They can't go out there, be drug addicts, and alcoholics and what-not. They have to be leaders. And that's very important.


MEAGAN PERRY: But sometimes it's difficult for younger people to recognize the changes that self-government might have brought into their lives. Can you think of any concrete examples of where those young people are seeing the benefits of self-government in their day-to-day?

DORIS MCLEAN: Well one of the things – a long time ago they were oppressed. Many times they were thrown into mission schools. They were taken away at a very young age – three years old – lived in a mission school, didn't have the love of their parents. Their parents lost the ability to give them guidance, to take care of them and show them what to do. They got up by the bell, woke by the bell, prayed by the bell, and yet they were told they were sinners and what-not, and everything negative. You bet there's been a change. It's better nowadays, you know. Our children are proud of who they are. They're learning to dance. They're learning to sing. We're taking it on in our First Nation that our children should learn their language. It's not enough time but we're getting there, you know? The role of the school is changing. The principals are changing. You know, that Elijah Smith School – that principal up there? I must commend John Wright for being such a wonderful principal. I wish we had a John Wright in my day.

MEAGAN PERRY: The self-government agreements are unique, and implementing them takes time, as you've mentioned. Do you have any predictions about how governments will overcome the challenges that come along with building something new?

DORIS MCLEAN: First of all, respect for yourself. You have to respect yourself. You have to learn that these people that you put your trust in are going to do just that, and you've got to back them up. You've got to be proud of your people. Quit being so negative out there. For goodness sake, the world is such a – you're only here such a short time, why make it miserable? If you're going to be so miserable, stay home. Go to bed.

MEAGAN PERRY: What do you think that self-government brings to the lives of First Nations and non First Nations Yukoners?

DORIS MCLEAN: Equality. Standing on the same stage. Doing the same things. Getting somewhere, and doing it together. And not being oppressed.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): That was Doris McLean of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation. She spoke to me in January of 2011 about Yukon land claims and self-government. This interview is intended to deepen public understanding of the history of land claims and self-government implementation in the Yukon. The ideas and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee alone. This series of podcasts was produced by the Implementation Working Group, a cooperation between the Council of Yukon First Nations, Government of Yukon, Government of Canada, and Self-Governing Yukon First Nations.