Supreme Court decision means windfall for Yukon First Nations, grand chief says

Peter Johnston says this week's ruling on the Teslin Tlingit Council's federal funding should also apply to the territory's other self-governing First Nations.

Court ruling says Ottawa should fund First Nations based on citizenship, not status

'We as Nations here in the Yukon look at all our citizens, regardless of status or non-status, as all our people,' said Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

The Grand Chief of Council of Yukon First Nations is hailing this week's ruling by the territory's Supreme Court as a huge win.

Peter Johnston says the court decision will have implications throughout the territory, and result in a significant increase in federal funding for self-governing First Nations.

The ruling, delivered by Justice Ron Veale on Tuesday, orders Ottawa to negotiate a new funding transfer agreement with the Teslin Tlingit Council (TTC) by the end of March.

A question of citizenship

Veale also ruled that the funding formula should be determined on a per capita basis for Teslin Tlingit citizens.

The Teslin Tlingit Council's 1993 self-government agreement established the definition of citizenship. 

"This definition of citizenship was a monumental achievement because it terminated the colonial and divisive status versus non-status distinction that artificially divided Yukon First Nation members," Veale wrote in his decision.

Veale also noted that in subsequent negotiations with the Teslin Tlingit, Canada reverted to its previous position on status versus non-status.

"We as Nations here in the Yukon look at all our citizens, regardless of status or non-status, as all our people," Johnston said.

In the case of the Teslin Tlingit Council, where 25 per cent of citizens do not have status, it meant the First Nation's self-government has had to provide services to about 800 people while only being funded for 600.

Johnston says the percentage of non-status citizens of some Yukon First Nations self-governments is as much as 50 per cent. That means funding could increase for those First Nations governments by tens of millions of dollars each year.

"For some Nations, this is going to be a huge contribution to their bottom line, if you will, to their financial transfer arrangement agreements," Johnston said.

'All the heavy lifting'

In the Supreme Court's December hearing, federal government lawyer Glen Jermyn argued Ottawa wasn't obligated to provide funding for citizens who didn't qualify as status Indians under the 1985 Indian Act.

The court disagreed. 

Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale's ruling orders Ottawa to negotiate a new funding transfer agreement with the Teslin Tlingit Council by the end of March. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

"While Canada has not explicitly agreed to fund every Citizen of TTC , it has solemnly agreed in the Self-Government Agreement to negotiate the demographic features of TTC, among other factors 'with the objective of providing the Teslin Tlingit Council with resources to enable the Teslin Tlingit Council to provide public services at levels reasonably comparable to those generally prevailing in Yukon,'" Veale wrote in his decision.

Johnston says the ruling must also apply to the territory's other self-governing First Nations. 

Eleven of the territory's 14 First Nations are self-governing.

"Teslin has done all the heavy lifting, and then devoted their resources to get to this point. It benefits all Yukon First Nations that have the self-governing agreements," Johnston said.

"It's just about recognition and the responsibility and the obligation Canada has to Yukon First Nations," Johnston said.

"It's about closing the gaps when it comes to just the journey that we've been on here in the territory."

The federal government hasn't commented on the ruling. It has the option of appealing to the Supreme Court of Canada.

With files from Leonard Linklater