Edward Elijah Smith (“Ta Me” in Southern Tutchone), CM, First Nations activist and chief (born 12 July 1912 in Champagne, YT; died 22 October 1991 near Finlayson Lake, YT). Smith was active in several First Nations groups and, in February 1973, along with representatives of the Yukon Native Brotherhood, presented a keystone document to the Government of Canada. “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow” is widely considered as the turning point for the settlement of Indigenous rights in Canada.
Smith was the son of Annie Ned and spent his entire life in the Yukon, except for six years he spent in Britain in the Canadian Army during the Second World War. His experience in the war changed his views about equality, how First Nations were treated and the need to protect their land and way of life. On his return to Canada after the war, Smith initially continued to follow a traditional Indigenous way of life and trapped, hunted and fished. He only moved into leadership positions in his fifties and was a “bit of a reluctant leader at first,” according to his son, Steve.
By the mid-1960s, the Yukon First Nations became concerned that they might lose their cultural identity and began to organize. Smith spoke at federal government hearings in Whitehorse, conducted in response to the government’s 1969 White Paper, formally known as the “Statement of the Government of Canada on Indian Policy, 1969.”
Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau and Minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development Jean Chrétien had proposed the White Paper. Among its sweeping recommendations were the abolition of earlier legal documents concerning the Indigenous peoples of Canada, including the Indian Act and treaties, as well as the full assimilation of “Indians” into the Canadian state.
As a result, Smith and a delegation of Yukon chiefs travelled to Ottawa and met with Trudeau. During the meeting, Smith said, “We, the Indians of Yukon, object to being treated like squatters in our own country…We feel the (non-Aboriginal) people of the North owe us a great deal and we would like the Government of Canada to see that we get a fair settlement for the use of the land. There was no treaty signed in this country, and they tell me the land still belongs to the Indians.”
At the meeting, Smith also presented the document “Together Today for our Children Tomorrow: A Statement of Grievances and an Approach to Settlement by the Yukon Indian People” to Trudeau.
Did You Know?
In Canada, a white paper is a Cabinet-approved document that explains an issue and the proposed legislation to address it. Its purpose is to test the public’s reaction to a new government policy. The 1969 White Paper was the most controversial one ever issued.
Smith was the founding president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood, a founding chairperson of the Council for Yukon Indians (now the Council of Yukon First Nations) and Yukon representative to the National Indian Brotherhood. He was also chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation. (His sons, Mike and Steve, were later elected chiefs as well).
Smith was ahead of his time when he spoke of the need for unity among First Nations peoples long before it was widely accepted. In 1993, 20 years after he led a delegation of Yukon First Nations representatives to Ottawa, the Umbrella Final Agreement was signed. This prepared the way for the finalization of modern-day treaties with each of the Yukon’s 14 First Nations.
On 14 January 1976, it was announced that Smith would be a Member of the Order of Canada “for his dedicated services to his people and for his ability to settle grievances peaceably.” He was invested into the order on 7 April 1976. (Smith’s mother was
later made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1989 for a lifetime of “maintaining and promoting the culture and the language of her people”).
On 29 May 1991, the University of British Columbia conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws degree on Smith. His citation reads in part:
First Nations people in Canada are showing renewed pride and self-respect after years of oppression at the hands of early European settlers. To a large degree, that renewal comes from the efforts of people such as Elijah Edward Smith…his work in unifying the First Nations peoples in the Yukon was inspirational…He spoke persuasively of the need for unity among First Nations peoples long before his vision was widely accepted. It was a result of his skill and diplomacy that the federal government agreed, in 1973, to negotiate a Yukon land claim — a decision that reversed federal policy for and set the precedent for all following land claim negotiations…He has been described as a plain-spoken man of wisdom and dedication — maintaining a modesty that made him approachable by anyone. We can all gain from the example this man has set.
On 22 October 1991, Smith was driving his pickup truck on the Robert Campbell Highway (Highway 4) at kilometre 261 near Finlayson Lake, when he lost control of the vehicle on the icy road. He was killed when he crashed head-on into a semi-trailer truck.
In 1992, the Government of Canada main offices in Whitehorse for the Yukon was named the Elijah Smith Building. That same year, the Elijah Smith Elementary School opened in Whitehorse.
In 2020, the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations nominated Smith for Canada’s new five dollar bank note, to replace the 2013 version depicting Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier. The nomination noted that “Smith is the single most influential Yukon First Nation leader and was at the forefront of reconciliation in Canada.”
From a list of 600 nominees suggested by almost 45,000 Canadians, a short list of eight was selected by an independent advisory council in 2020. Although it did not include Smith, four of the nominees are Indigenous persons. The minister of Finance will make the final choice.