Paul Birckel, leader in Yukon land claim negotiations, has died

Paul Birckel, the former chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in Yukon who played a major role in negotiating one of the territory’s first land claim agreements, has died. He was 82 years old.

Birckel died just before noon on Thursday at the Whistle Bend Place long-term care home in Whitehorse, his niece Barb Joe said.

Birckel was born in the Burwash area and spent much of his early life around the community and Haines Junction. He would later settle in Whitehorse, but in his later years he continued to spend a lot of time on the land and at his cabin at Dezadeash Lake.

Birckel was elected chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations in 1978 and would serve five terms. During that time, he lead negotiations for what would be one of the first four land claim and self-government agreements in Yukon. It was signed in 1993 and came into effect in 1995.  

Speaking to CBC last year, to mark 25 years of self-government, Birckel recalled that he saw the landmark agreement as something that would “give a lot of hope” to his people.

“We needed something, some kind of an agreement done to help our people,” he said.

Birckel holding copies of the agreement signed in 1993. ‘We needed something, some kind of an agreement done to help our people,’ he later recalled. (Champagne and Aishihik First Nations)

In 2018, Birckel also reflected back on an even earlier time — when Indigenous leaders from Yukon made a historic trip to Ottawa in 1973 to make their case for negotiating modern treaties.

“We had books, and we had buttons … and we sent the people around to all the communities talking about this book [Together Today for our Children Tomorrow], and spent about two years doing those kind of things,” he recalled, on the 45th anniversary of that trip.

“I don’t think people knew what self-government was, because Indian Affairs said they had the job of looking after us, and taking us to school.”

‘He understood things, and he had solutions’

In 2000, Birckel was named an Indspire Award Laureate, described as “the highest honour the Indigenous community bestows upon its own achievers.” He’s one of just six Yukoners who have received that award.

“Mr. Birckel spearheaded one of the first land claims settlements in the Yukon, securing 960 square miles of land, $58 million dollars, and a self-government agreement that became a template for future self-government agreements across Canada,” reads his biography on the Indspire website.

In 2002, he was also awarded the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal.

Birckel was given many awards over the years, for his role in negotiating land claim agreements and his business success. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Barb Joe describes her uncle as a “visionary,” fiercely intelligent, and always reasonable.

“He made very hard decisions in the early years in the land claims process, and I think that was very much what got our First Nation to where it is at this point,” she said.

“He listened, he understood things, and he had solutions that you may not have thought of … I was always in awe of listening to him speak about things.”

Joe — now a councillor with the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) — says she often drew on Birckel’s wisdom and experience. She’d often go sit with him, she said, to get his input.

“He’d give me advice about what to do, and make me think about things — even in the later years, up until this year … he just wanted to be involved, all his life.”

Joe says one of Birckel’s biggest achievements was negotiating a pioneering child welfare agreement between his First Nation and the Yukon government in the 1990s. 

Birckel also had a hand in business, helping several Yukon First Nations purchase the Yukon Inn, and launching a forest products division at Dakwakada, CAFN’s investment arm. In 1995, Birckel was named “Businessman of the Year” by the Yukon Chamber of Commerce.

Paul and Kathy Birckel at their old cabin at Klukshu, Yukon. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

“He was very skilled tradesperson,” Joe recalled. “I remember Paul could pretty much do anything, like he could figure stuff out fairly quickly.”

Joe said her uncle spent a lot of time in his later years with his wife Kathy, living at their cabin at Dezadeash Lake. He enjoyed being on the land, she said.

Even there — far from the boardroom or negotiating table — Birckel had vision like few others. 

“He was a real sharpshooter,” Joe said. “His shooting eye was excellent. He could spot a grouse, but like very far away, that some of us hadn’t seen.”