Sam Johnston, First First Nations Speaker in Canada

Article 8 / 8 , Vol 42 No. 2 (Summer)

Sam Johnston, First First Nations Speaker in Canada

Samuel (Sam) Johnston, of the Teslin Tlingit, holds a unique place in Canadian history as the first First Nations person to be elected Speaker in Yukon and in Canada. He was also instrumental in the development of land claims and First Nation self-government agreements between First Nations, and the governments of Yukon and Canada.

Caitilín O’Hare

Born in 1935 in Teslin, a small village in Yukon

that is part of the Teslin Tlingit Traditional

Territory and was historically the summer

meeting place for Inland Tlingit people, Samuel

(Sam) Johnston’s journey into politics began when he

was elected Chief of the Teslin Tlingit Council in 1970,

a position he held until 1984. In February 1973 he

travelled to Ottawa as part of a delegation of Yukon

First Nations Chiefs to present then Prime Minister

Pierre Trudeau with a document titled Together

Today for Our Children Tomorrow – A Statement of

Grievances and an Approach to Settlement by the Yukon

Indian People. This document, to which Johnston was

a signatory, outlined the history and needs of Yukon

First Nations peoples, and became the foundation for

the Umbrella Final Agreement. Though not reached

until 1988 and finalized in 1990, the Umbrella Final

Agreement serves as the template for final (land

claims) and self-government agreements between

individual Yukon First Nations, the Government of

Canada, and the Government of Yukon.

Johnston’s involvement with the Yukon Legislative

Assembly began in 1985 when he was elected as the

New Democratic Party Member for Campbell, a seat

he retained in 1989. He was first elected Speaker

of the Legislative Assembly of Yukon on July 15,

1985, at the outset of the First Session of the 26th

Legislature. This not only made Johnston the first

First Nations person to serve as Speaker in Yukon,

but the first in Canada. He was elected Speaker for a

second time on March 8, 1989, the first sitting day of

the 27th Legislature, and he held the position for its

duration. During this period, he continued his efforts

to support the First Nation population of Yukon, and

Sketches of Parliaments and Parliamentarians Past

Government of Yukon

further the work that he had accomplished as Chief

of the Teslin Tlingit Council. On June 3, 1992, on the

final sitting day of his tenure as Speaker, during the

second reading debate on the bill, the Government

House Leader’s request that the Speaker be allowed

to address the House regarding Bill No. 73, An Act

Approving Yukon Land Claim Final Agreements received

unanimous consent. Johnston said: “…I hope that

the legislation set out today will be the tool for our

children to make a better life for themselves. Our

young people are our future leaders. This will be their

opportunity to provide for their children. Therefore,

we as leaders today, must encourage our young

people to continue with this process, with these same

principles, on into the future that awaits them….”1