Teslin Tlingit Council
Community Leaders

Voices of Vision: An interview with Sam Johnston

An interview with Sam Johnston
Audio file

Sam Johnston is a well-respected Teslin Tlingit elder with an impressive political history. He served as Chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council for more than a decade, and was also a Member of the Yukon Legislative Assembly. Through his role as Speaker of the Yukon Legislative Assembly, Sam holds the distinction of being the first Aboriginal Speaker in Canada. On top of his political laurels, Johnston is an accomplished archer, dog musher and Tlingit dancer. Among his long list of accolades are the Yukon Commissioner's Award and induction into the Sport Yukon Hall of Fame.



SAM JOHNSTON: My name is Sam Johnston. I'm one of the Clan Leaders from the Teslin Tlingit Council.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): Sam Johnston has a long history in government. He was Chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council from the early '70s to the mid 1980s where he played an important role in crafting a document that laid out a new vision of land claims and aboriginal self-government. Here he is talking about delivering that momentous document to then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.

SAM JOHNSTON: When we went there it was all the 12 Chiefs from the Yukon, when that document was presented: Together Today for our Children Tomorrow. And that was presented to the government of the day, the Liberal government in Ottawa in 1973 – February 14th. We laughed about it after a while. Well, we gave Trudeau a nice Valentine present. [laughs]

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): The document they took to Ottawa led to the creation of the Umbrella Final Agreement which is the base for Yukon's world-renowned version of modern-day aboriginal self-government. I'm Meagan Perry. Sam Johnston lives in Teslin but several times a year he makes a two-hour drive to Whitehorse to teach Tlingit at the Yukon Native Language Centre. While he was in town I met him at his daughter's house to talk about aboriginal self-government in the Yukon, but we started by talking about Teslin.

MEAGAN PERRY: Describe the First Nation and its traditional territory for me.

SAM JOHNSTON: Well Teslin were inland Tlingit people. Our ancestors are originally from the coast – south-east Alaska. And Teslin is one of the bigger Tlingit communities. There are three. There are some in Atlin, B.C. and Carcross, but Teslin is the bigger of the Tlingit First Nations. It's a community that has been there for a long, long time – way before the highway – even though it was never really a settlement. When the highway came through then some had to either move closer so the kids can go to school, even though some of them were sent to – the only school that you can go to was you were sent away to residential schools.

MEAGAN PERRY: Now I want you to cast your mind back.


MEAGAN PERRY: And I want you to tell me about how you became involved in working towards self-government and land claims agreements and their implementation. Was there a personal connection for you?


SAM JOHNSTON: Well back then, you see, like there were a lot of changes started coming – sudden changes started coming for our people, and there was a man in there particular – his name was Elijah Smith; you've probably heard about that. He was one of those that travelled, and he was also overseas during the war, and I guess in a way he'd seen how other nations worked and how they could work together to try to make a betterment for their people. One of the things that was really bothering the people here – say like with the renewable resources, say like with the game, the fish, everything that we touched, and the mining – that people were coming in and started taking over. And none of it was rubbing off on the First Nation side. And we had to try to do something and to try to convince the government that you guys are making decisions on our behalf. It's time that we got involved. We're tired of sitting in the corner, so to speak, while you're making decisions for us. Especially when it comes to renewable resources, like what our people depended on – animals and that – and I guess the message in a way was that OK, when you come to renewable resources, when you're going to govern our people, that for every five board members you have we want at least two of our people sitting with you at the table.

MEAGAN PERRY: What was it that sparked your interest to get involved yourself?

SAM JOHNSTON: Well when you're a Chief and once you start doing different things, I guess people look at you to say well, he'll be the man to do it. Some of the things that, I guess, in a way you had no say but to do it, to start with the land claims. You see like us, we never got our Umbrella Agreement right away. It took years.

MEAGAN PERRY: How long was it from the time you became involved to the point where the Umbrella Final Agreement was signed?

SAM JOHNSTON: Like I say, I guess we say we delivered in '73 but by the '80s the first one came out but it was rejected. Too much left out. After a while when you're working we have to learn to read the small print too. And if it's not quite what you want, you wouldn't sign it. That was what was happening. That's why it took a little longer even though, like, when land claims started – “Oh, how long is this going to take?” “Six months.” Six months all right. [laughs] It took years.

MEAGAN PERRY: So now the land claim agreements have been signed, now most people have moved on to implementation. And implementation of self-government is this process that requires long-term commitments, participation from all the parties – from Yukon Government, Government of Canada, First Nation governments. What have the big issues been for Teslin Tlingit Council?


SAM JOHNSTON: Well the biggest thing that I see in anything, to make anything work, anyone can write a nice proposal. It looks nice on paper, but try to implement it. It takes time. These kind of things don't happen overnight. It takes days, weeks, months, years before you finally start – where you start to see how, my goodness what you really need is people that are educated and trained to do different issues to make our government work. If you're going to run a government you have to start laying down policies and that for everything – everything from housing to game to – like the other governments. It's taken time to start doing it but we slowly starting to get our people up and up in there. It's still hard to convince our young people the importance of education. Just because you've got your grade 12 doesn't mean that you're – that you could do anything, especially in this day and age. It's a totally different thing from way back when, when a lot of the things – a lot of us, you learn on the job. It's not like that today.

MEAGAN PERRY: So do you think education is going to be a primary push in implementation at Teslin?

SAM JOHNSTON: Education is very, very important by anybody's standards. The more we get involved with that kind of thing, and if there is anything we can offer to make a better tomorrow for our young people and people in general, go for it.

MEAGAN PERRY: In the course of your work, was there ever a time when you felt like self-government had made a breakthrough or when you could clearly see that self-government was having a positive effect on the Yukon?

SAM JOHNSTON: Yes, and there we go again with education. You see, it was nice to see that our own people – the First Nation people – started to become school teachers, nurses, lawyers. One that I'm waiting for right now is to have our own doctor. When we have a really doctor, boy, we'll be really happy to see that one of our own has studied to work as a doctor. That would be history in itself because right now, like we have a lot of different ways that we trained with our self-government.

MEAGAN PERRY: You were the first aboriginal Speaker of the House in Canada. So you have an idea of what it's like, maybe, to be the first person to do something like that. What do you think – you know, you were talking about having a first lawyer and a first doctor. What do you think it takes to get kids moving ahead like that?


SAM JOHNSTON: Well I think one of the first things we have to really break through is you have to start learning to believe in yourself. For too often we were made to believe we couldn't do anything. We were Indians, we were heathens, we were just – we couldn't learn. But this is why it's hard to sometimes really try to explain about the land claims. We had to prove to the rest of the world that we were people too, that given half of a chance we can move on with anything too and become – do different things and be good at it.

MEAGAN PERRY: I want to go back to implementation a bit and say, you know, it's important for all the Yukon citizens to understand the Umbrella Final Agreement and the Yukon First Nation final agreements and the self-government agreements, but those are complicated documents. You know they're quite – they're hefty. How do you explain those agreements to Yukoners in a simple way?

SAM JOHNSTON: Well the simplest way that I could say, that we want the rest of the Yukon to know that we didn't trigger land claims so that we could take over. But the real thing was that we wanted to become involved with the makings and with our young people, both Native and non-Native, where we can all work together and try to keep our Yukon the way it is. Yukon is a very unique place. One of the things, it's such a vast country with not so many people but look at the size of our country here. And if we want to keep it that way we have to work together.

MEAGAN PERRY: Yukon is home to 11 of the self-government agreements that exist in Canada, and in southern Canada most aboriginal people are under the Indian Act. How do explain Yukon's version of self-government to First Nation governments in southern Canada?

SAM JOHNSTON: One of the first things that we worked at here, there was a time when there was three different First Nation organizations here in Yukon. There was the Yukon Native Brotherhood – all the Chiefs – and there was the CYI, which was Council for Yukon Indians, and there was the YANSI, the Yukon Association of Non-Status Indians. They were all working and after a while we saw that we were all trying to do the same thing. And it's too much of duplication, and one of the main messages from the Elders was: we want our grandchildren back. If the Native woman is to marry the white man, well they moved over to the other side so their kids no longer were Status. So one of the things that we worked very hard was to try to unite the whole thing, which is a lot easier today because they both – both sides, like the Status and the Non-Status ones – those half ones – we could work together.

MEAGAN PERRY: Right. So before self-government the Non-Status Indians had different services available to them and were part of a different community than people who had Status under the Indian Act? Is that right?


SAM JOHNSTON: Well the ones that had Status – what do you call them? – Indian Affairs was working with them. And the other ones, they weren't part of it. They never got no help with education or hospitals and things like that. So we wanted to try to listen to our Elders when they said we want our grandchildren back. I think this is why we really worked hard too, to get that going. I think it's the only place probably where both sides worked together. Out of the way from the Yukon they still have their First Nations or they have the Métis organizations.

MEAGAN PERRY: Do you have predictions for how the governments will overcome the challenges that come along with building something new like the Yukon model of self-government?

SAM JOHNSTON: I think one of the things, sometimes we get run down on why – you're supposed to be a Native government. How come you're hiring so many non-Native people? But we still need you people to show us the way, how to work and how to do different things. And I think one of the ways that I see this thing happening – say like if there's a really good up and up job, if a non-Native get hired there, there should be another one of our own working alongside there where, if for some reason this other one leaves, well, we'll get someone trained in there to do it. We can't just go in there green, so to speak. We've tried that from way back, you see? Even before land claims Teslin Tlingit people, we started a store. We had our one and only canoe factory in the Yukon there for a while. But there again, you see, like we need trained people for the canoes and also we needed a good – someone that know how to market.

MEAGAN PERRY: Your son is currently Chief of Teslin Tlingit Council, right?


MEAGAN PERRY: What do you hear from him about self-government?


SAM JOHNSTON: It's good to see that our younger people are getting into this kind of thing now, and how they are running the whole organization because it's a lot more than when we were in there. Like first we started it. It's a lot more – a lot more than what meets the eye, like not just anybody right off the street can get in there to start doing this kind of thing. It takes time. But to me it's nice to see where more of our younger people get involved with these kind of things.

MEAGAN PERRY: You know Yukon First Nations, as you know, have a history of working on land claims and – that went on long before the UFA was signed. How do you feel being part of that history?

SAM JOHNSTON: It's quite a feeling. It's hard to explain really and – but it's just nice to look back at all these things that you had a hand in to do these things and you were part of it, and hopefully that one day my young grandchildren can look at this and look at where you were in there as part of the whole thing, how it all started.

MEAGAN PERRY (VOICE OVER): That was Sam Johnston, Clan Leader and former Chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council. He's also served as Speaker of the Yukon Legislative Assembly. I spoke to him in February of 2011. The opinions expressed in this interview are intended to deepen public understanding of the history of land claims and self-government implementation in the Yukon, and are the opinions and ideas of the interviewee alone. This series of podcasts was produced by the Implementation Working Group, a cooperation between Council of Yukon First Nations, Government of Yukon, Government of Canada, and Self-Governing Yukon First Nations.