Mike Smith remembered as 'warrior' for Indigenous rights in Yukon

Smith, who died last week at age 71, was one of Yukon's first Indigenous lawyers and helped get the ball rolling on land claims in the territory.

Hundreds of people paid tribute to Smith at an event in Whitehorse on Sunday

Mike Smith on a hunting trip in 2015. Smith was an avid hunter, who always maintained a deep connection to his traditional culture. (Mike Rudyk)

Mike Smith, a Yukon First Nations leader who died last week at 71, is being mourned and remembered as a trailblazer and a "warrior" for Indigenous rights in Yukon. 

Hundreds of people filled the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse on Sunday to pay tribute to Smith. Several First Nation chiefs spoke, including Assembly of First Nations National Chief, Perry Bellegarde.

Bellegarde said Smith was an example in the way he pursued a higher education — becoming one of Yukon's first Indigenous lawyers — while also maintaining a strong connection to his Indigenous language, culture and traditions. 

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde speaks at a remembrance ceremony for Mike Smith on Sunday in Whitehorse. (Alexandra Byers/CBC)

"When we think of Chief Mike, he brought that good balance. And that's what we will always remember him for."

Richard Sidney, who once worked alongside Smith at the Council of Yukon Indians (now the Council of Yukon First Nations) to push for land claim agreements, told the gathering that Smith's deep love for his traditional culture was genuine.

So was his commitment to fight for Indigenous rights.

"Mike was very patient, very tolerant, very forgiving — but he was true warrior," Sidney said.

'That's what I miss' 

Smith was raised in a small community on the shore of Lake Laberge, surrounded by his extended family, and what he called "the old ways of living."

In an 1998 interview with the CBC, he spoke plainly about how that early life filled his memories and shaped his outlook.

"I miss the whole aspect of Lake Laberge acting as a community, I miss the whole aspect of having a whole extended family to relate to," he said.

"We didn't have alcohol to contend with, we didn't have broken families to contend with, we didn't have all the dysfunctional behaviour.

"It was a struggle but it was still okay ... for the most part, it was a really healthy way of living. That's what I miss."

Smith grew up on the shores of Lake Laberge, and always held those memories close. 'I miss the whole aspect of Lake Laberge acting as a community, I miss the whole aspect of having a whole extended family to relate to,' he once said. (Ta'an Kwäch'än Council)

His younger brother, Steve Smith — now chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations — says his brother, never fixated on some idyllic past, though.

When Indigenous leaders began talking more, in the 1970s, about land claims in Yukon, Smith was convinced that the best thing he could do was to educate himself and prepare for future legal battles.

He went to law school and he and Dave Joe became Yukon's first Indigenous lawyers.

Focused on the big picture

"Mike became sort of that person who started to really analyse [Aboriginal title in Yukon] and set the groundwork for our leaders back then — to put forward the argument for a land claim," Steve Smith said.

Smith's brother Steve Smith, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, spoke at the remembrance ceremony on Sunday. (Alexandra Byers/CBC)

He says his brother was always focused on the big picture, "knowing that if we were going to take our rightful place in society, within the Yukon fabric, within the Canadian fabric, that we had to be strong and healthy people — and so establishing our Aboriginal rights and title and also re-establishing our language."

Sean Smith, a Kwanlin Dün councillor, remembers growing up and seeing Mike Smith and others get the ball rolling on what would ultimately become the Umbrella Final Agreement for Yukon First Nations.

"We watched those leaders and those elders and the community citizens from all over the Yukon congregate and have these large discussions, and they would go on for days," Sean Smith recalled.

"When you look across the country, you see the land claim agreements in the territory as being the leading edge."

Smith, then chief of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation, with Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie at the signing of the Kwanlin Dün land claim agreement, in 2005. (CBC)

Mike Smith, he said, was a leader and a mentor — a residential school survivor who "took down barriers."

"The indoctrination that happened [at residential school], upon those children at that time and the trauma that was inflicted upon them —he managed to persevere and move on to develop himself."

Steve Smith agrees, saying his brother was a natural leader who never actually aspired to power. People simply recognized those leadership qualities in him, despite his soft-spoken demeanour.

"For us, leadership is considered a responsibility," Steve Smith said. "We have a responsibility to our children to work every day at building a better life for them."

"That work continues all the time and Mike was so committed to it."

With files from Sandi Coleman, Dave White and Alexandra Byers