Teslin Tlingit Council in Yukon establishing its own laws and justice system

Wooden totems represent the clans of the Teslin Tlingit Council in Teslin, Yukon. The First Nation is working to establish a court to hold trials and hear evidence in adjudicating Teslin Tlingit law. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Teslin Tlingit Council is moving toward establishing its own court and corrections system.

The First Nation in the Yukon is in the final stages of negotiating funding with the federal government, and has set an implementation date for 2027.

According to Kooxuhan-Georgina Sydney, the Teslin Tlingit Council justice implementation coordinator, the First Nation has accepted a funding offer from the federal government. Now, the executive council is waiting for it to return from the federal Treasury Board so they can get to work upholding their own laws.

“If somebody breaks our law, they’ll go to our court,” said Sydney.

The Teslin Tlingit Council has been working toward establishing a two-stage court system since it signed its self-government agreement in 1995 and its administration of justice agreement in 2011.

The First Nation has already established a peacemaker court where mediation services are provided. The first chief peacemaker was appointed in 2014.

Now, this most recent agreement will fund the second stage.

A court will be established to hold trials and hear evidence in adjudicating Teslin Tlingit law. The First Nation has jurisdiction under its self-government agreement to write laws related to land management, including hunting, habitat protection, prevention of overcrowding and land development. It also has jurisdiction over adoption, inheritance, wills and the solemnization of marriage.

There will also be a corrections system established with a healing camp on the land, counselling and community support.

According to Sydney, holistic support has long been missing from the justice system.

“In mainstream justice, you go to court, you pay a fine or go to jail. That’s it,” Sydney said. “We’re providing healing services to our people, so they won’t go back to jail. A lot of our issues right now is that people don’t have that available to them.”

Justice based in traditional ways

The Teslin Tlingit’s justice model is rooted in its traditional form of government and its clan system.

“We’re holistic in our nature,” Sydney said. “It’s hard for us to separate justice from our government — it’s all a part of it.”

There are five clans: frog, raven, wolf, split-tail beaver and eagle. Each clan has a representative on the Teslin Tlingit justice council.

Traditionally, wrongdoings would be addressed by the clan as a whole. Issues would be taken to the clan leader and addressed as a community. That would establish accountability and responsibility for one’s actions, Sydney explained.

Federal agreements stalled

The Teslin Tlingit Council is the first Yukon First Nation to secure a justice agreement.

Even though the administration of justice is an aspect of every self-government agreement in the territory, actually establishing justice plans for all of them hasn’t happened yet.

Erin Linklater, who works as an engagement consultant for the Council of Yukon First Nations (CYFN), recently gave a presentation preceding some engagement sessions at CYFN’s annual justice conference. She was collecting information for the federal Indigenous Justice Strategy.

‘A lot of First Nations have been sort of half at the negotiation table for almost 30 years,’ said Erin Linklater, an engagement consultant for the Council of Yukon First Nations. (Gabrielle Plonka/CBC)

Linklater explained that justice negotiations were initially pushed back to make it easier to reach self-government agreements, with the promise that justice plans would follow.

“A lot of First Nations have been sort of half at the negotiation table for almost 30 years,” she said.

Linklater later told CBC News that federal rules implemented 10 years ago have further stalled negotiations. Now, self-governing First Nations are required to draft and implement their entire justice agreements in one go.

“That would take years, and is truly an impossible feat,” Linklater said.

Prior to 2011, the Teslin Tlingit Council was permitted to negotiate and implement its agreement in phases.

During her presentation, Linklater noted that there’s space in the Yukon for communities to benefit from Indigenous policing, rehabilitation and more humanizing court systems.

“I am trained as a lawyer … and when you’re going through law school, it’s so obvious as an Indigenous person how contrary to our culture a lot of those practices are,” she said. “We can imagine that Indigenous courts might have a different procedure.”

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Ottawa laying groundwork for Indigenous justice systems, says Lametti, CBC News

Canada: Election Spotlight— Justice in Nunavik, Eye on the Arctic

Finland: Police response times up to an hour slower in Arctic Finland, Yle News

United States: Violence Against Women bill would expand power of up to 30 Alaska tribal courts, Alaska Public Media

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