Pioneering Yukon Indigenous leader in running to be face of the new $5 bill

A Yukon First Nation has nominated the late Elijah Smith, a pioneer in Indigenous rights in Yukon and Canada, to be the face of the new $5 bill.

Elijah Smith has been nominated by a Yukon First Nation to be on the new banknote

The late Elijah Smith, seen here in an undated photo, was an outspoken advocate for First Nations rights in Yukon. The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations have nominated Smith to be featured on the new $5 bill. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations)

Rose Kushniruk says it wasn't easy putting in the nomination for pioneering Yukon First Nations leader Elijah Smith to be the new face of the Canadian $5 bill.

"It was a big challenge to describe him. They asked for 100 words or less," she recalled.

The Bank of Canada put out the call for nominations earlier this year. Nearly 45,000 submissions came in, and the list has been whittled down to 600 possible contenders — including the late Smith.

He was nominated by the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations. Kushniruk, the deputy chief, said a citizen came up with the idea in March.

"So they phoned me, and I got on it," she said.

"I think we, as all Yukoners, have somebody to be very proud of. And hopefully Elijah does make it on the $5 bill."

Led historic trip to Ottawa

Smith was born in Champagne in 1912, and went on to become an outspoken advocate for First Nations rights in Yukon.

He was the founding president of the Yukon Native Brotherhood in the 1960s, and in 1973 he famously led a delegation of Yukon leaders to Ottawa to deliver a document called "Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow" to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau. It was to serve as a position paper on which to base future land claim negotiations.

That delegation made history by managing to convince the federal government to negotiate a modern-day treaty. That eventually led to the signing of Yukon's Umbrella Final Agreement — a watershed moment for Indigenous rights in Yukon and Canada. 

"He was at the forefront of reconciliation in Canada," said Kushniruk.

"These agreements that we are living today are beneficial to everyone, both First Nations and non-First Nations people, especially here in the Yukon."

The selection process for the new face of the $5 bill will take a while yet. An advisory council will begin by reviewing the 600 nominees — everybody from Samuel de Champlain to John Candy — and narrow it down to a shortlist. That will eventually go to the federal minister of finance for a final decision.

Then the process to design the new bill begins. According to the Bank of Canada, the new bills should begin circulating within a few years.

A similar process in 2016 ended with Viola Desmond being selected for the $10 bill.