There are 14 First Nations in Yukon. The highway slices through the traditional territories of eight of these nations. These include: Kaska Dena, Teslin Tlingit, Carcross Tagish, Kwanlin Dun, Ta’an Kwach’an, Champagne and Aishihik, White River, and Kluane First Nations.
While First Nations in southern Yukon had been dealing with white traders for more than half a century in 1942, besides Whitehorse, southern Yukon had little development and so little reason for settler habitation or government interference.
This all changed with the highway.
Front cover of "Together Today for our Children Tomorrow". (Courtesy of Council of Yukon First Nations)
In 1973, Chief Elijah Smith of the Yukon Native Brotherhood (precursor to the present Council of Yukon First Nations) presented “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow” to Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. This document outlined the grievances First Nations in Yukon held with the colonial government, and proposed solutions to benefit future generations. This would be the beginning of a decades long land claims process between the Canadian Government, the Yukon Government and the First Nations. Six of the eight First Nations along the Alaska Highway settled their land claims between 1995 and 2006, and are self-governing First Nations. White River and Kaska Dena First Nations opted to not sign land claims.
In the document grievances associated with the highway construction had its own section. They included offering First Nations people money and jobs to leave the bush while the war was ongoing, but leaving no means of support once everyone had left.
“The money left with the Americans. The traps were rusted and the cabins in need of repair. Many did not go back to the traplines. Some of us moved into shacks on the edge of White communities, and there were no jobs,” says "Together Today for our Children Tomorrow".
Then came the bureaucratic machine of government.
“Then came Indian Affairs. They made up the Band lists. Then came welfare. They invented the Indian Village,” says the document, “this made it easier for administration.”
It is this bureaucratic influx included removing more children from their families to be put in residential schools. By 1946, 438 more children were registered for residential schools in the Yukon.
In 1977, the Canadian government conducted an inquiry into the potential repercussions of building a pipeline following the route of the highway. Investigations included testimonies from people affected by the construction of the Alaska Highway.
Georgina Sidney, a Teslin Tlingit woman testified to the social disruption of the highway,
“People worked together here, they hunted together, they took care of each other. Now, no one is taking care of it, and the next door neighbour -they don't care.”
Anthropologist Julie Cruikshank spent more than three decades in the Yukon, working with local people, notably working with elders and First Nations researchers to create books and works to preserve local stories, and therefore knowledge. Her specialty was “the Gravel Magnet”, as the Alaska Highway was called, because soon after construction people started moving to its borders. She testified at the inquiry that the highway had caused social and economic upheaval.
In a later paper she said, referring to First Nations in southern Yukon,
“Older people identify ‘the highway’ as the time when traditional institutions began to break down.”
Cruikshank goes on to say that, “Older Natives overwhelmingly maintain that the highway brought alcohol abuse and an alarming amount of violence, grief and further social disruption.”
As the highway’s construction went on, overhunting became a problem in Southwestern Yukon. Therefore, Kluane National Park and Reserve was established, right over the hunting and trapping grounds of the Champagne and Aishihik, White River, and Kluane First Nations.
Indian Affairs even acknowledged at the time that the local animals had been decimated by American soldiers;
“The Indians, therefore, who from time immemorial had hunted and trapped over the area without decimating the supply of big game animals have now to bear the brunt of rehabilitation.”
According to Cruikshank, the effects of not being able to hunt on the game reserve were amplified once the jobs from the Americans dried up.
A further effect of the highway was disease.
As the Americans descended into Yukon, smallpox, tuberculosis, whooping cough, influenza and other diseases devastated First Nations in southern Yukon. Between 1942 and 1947 death rates were higher than birth rates in the region as people from the outside brought in wave after wave of sickness. For this the United States Army and Canadian Government did express concern, and provided some doctors, but not nearly enough to slow the epidemics.
The frustration of First Nations peoples outlined “Together Today for our Children Tomorrow” wasn’t modernity, but exclusion from it. The highway, and other colonial apparatuses, disrupted social and economic institutions and spread devastating sicknesses in southern Yukon, but left no room for enterprise or traditional activities. Trapping, which had once been for food and trade, was no longer sustainable because of low animal populations, and the creation of the national park. It also brought colonial policies and bureaucracies into areas that had been previously relatively independent.