On July 15, 1985, Sam Johnston was elected
Speaker of the, Yukon Legislative Assembly. The first native Canadian to occupy
a Speaker's Chair in Canada, he was interviewed by the editor for the Canadian
Parliamentary Review in August, 1986, at the Canadian Regional Conference of
CPA in Toronto.
Tell us a bit about your background
before going into politics.
I worked at all kinds of things, in lumber
mills, survey parties and as a guide for big game outfitters. During the winter
months I worked the trap lines. I was always able to find a job. During the
1970s and early 1980s I served as Chief of the Teslin Indian Band. The Chief is
elected every two years. It used to be more of a ceremonial office but the
position took on more administrative aspects as we organized new programs and
took over existing ones administered by the Department of Indian and Northern
Affairs. I was the first of our Band Chiefs to have administrative
I remember organizing a walkathon to raise
money for the Band. We raised about $600 and that was the start of our fund.
The Chief had to account for every cent but I had no training in
administration. The public health nurse helped me to keep the books. I also
took some training as Band manager. That was the only way to earn money since
the Chief was not paid but the manager was. As we took over more responsibility
from the federal government the office of Chief became a fulltime one.
How were the Tlingits traditionally
There are two main clans, the Wolf and the
Crow, and out of these two main clans are subclans which have different names.
In my particular little clan, called the Ishkeetan, everything falls on the
mother's side and we are a subclan of the Crow clan. In the small village of
Teslin there are five different clans among our people and, out of those clans,
there are five different leaders plus the Chief. Even though I am not the Chief
anymore I am still the leader of my clan. We are the leaders of our own people
and, therefore, we are the key spokesmen for our clans. Any time there are
issues that come up, such as a potlatch where my people need to have their
voice heard then it is up to me to stand up and speak. If there is good to be
said you say it, if you feel you are affected by the other clans, if there is
something they have done that has affected your clan, then you speak to that
During potlatches, which are not done now as
formally as before, you have opportunities for a lot of speeches, especially a
year after the burial when we put up the gravemarker. Many of those speeches
would be about how pleased everyone is that a loved one has finally been put to
rest properly. At this time, too, if there was something that was bothering
your clan about anything another clan had done or not done, that is when
something could be said. For example, it might be about a violation of someone
else's hunting or fishing area which used to be quite clearly understood. There
is not the same respect for those areas today. In the past everything was based
on survival and we were taught respect for the land and animals. We would never
take any more than we needed because it is wrong to be wasteful. We followed
the salmon, we followed where the birds migrate. We would go to the mountains
for our winter's meat. All that has changed now and you do not see too many of
the native people solely living off the land anymore.
How did you get into politics?
When I retired as Band Chief in 1982 I had
no thought of getting into the legislature. I spent some time working the trap
lines and was earning good money. The market for long haired lynx and wolverine
is very good and a person can earn $30,000 or more for a few months work. A
good trapper has to really work the lines and study the game. He must be a
self-made game biologist.
Before the 1985 election the person who held
the seat for Campbell in the Assembly moved to Watson Lake. He said jokingly
that he thought I should be the next MLA. In fact, because of my experience as
Chief, I was approached by all three parties to see if I was interested in
Why did you go into politics?
With the coming of the land claims, I felt
it was time that the native people started getting into the government and what
better place to start. My thought was that I would be able to start opening doors
for those who follow me. They will be thinking If Sam can do it, why can't
I?" There are a lot of decisions made in this House that affect the Indian
people, especially when it conies to renewable resources. I felt it was time
for the Indian people to start getting into the government where we can
participate in decision-making rather than being on the outside looking in.
Was there any particular issue that made
you choose the New Democratic Party?
It was not so much an issue as a question of
geography. You see there are three main areas in the constituency Teslin, Ross
River and Upper Laird. The Conservatives nominated somebody from Ross River
over a person from Teslin. This meant that if Teslin was to have a chance to be
represented in the Legislature it would have to be with one of the other
parties. I opted for the New Democratic Party and won the election by about
Tell us a bit more about your
It is one of the larger ridings in the
Yukon. Teslin, in the centre, is about eight hours by road from Ross River and
about three hours from Liard. There are about 600 voters in the riding and I
probably know most of them personally. It is important to represent all three
communities and I try to visit them once a month. We do not have any
constituency offices so I stay with friends for four or five days and make sure
that I contact the community clubs, band chiefs, the RCMP and any individuals
who might want to see me.
Were you surprised to be chosen Speaker
of the Assembly after the election?
I sure was. The election results were very
close with eight NDP, six Conservatives and two Liberals. After the ministers
had been appointed there were only three government backbenchers: Norma Kassi,
Art Webster and myself. When the Government Leader asked me to be Speaker I
declined but he asked me to think it over. That weekend the newspaper ran a
picture of the Speaker's chair with a story about who was going to fill it. I
decided to accept although I had never laid eyes on the Assembly in my life. I
wished I had at least visited the House so that I would have had some idea of
what I was getting into.
Do your constituents ever complain about
their member being the Speaker?
At the start I think there was a bit of a
misunderstanding. My constituents thought that they had elected a member and
were now losing him with my election as Speaker. After a while I think that
attitude changed a bit and I think as Speaker I may have even better access to
ministers than I would have had otherwise. Also, in our House, the rules do
allow me to attend and speak in the Committee of the Whole. Although the
Speaker should never make partisan speeches it is possible, in that situation,
to speak on behalf of my electoral district. I always try to be very careful
and not to say anything unless it is absolutely necessary.
What did you find to be the greatest
difficulties as a result of your lack of experience in the House and in the
It is very difficult sitting in that big
chair with the galleries full and all members looking at you. I had to get used
to certain formalities like calling members by their constituency. As far as
procedure was concerned I had to rely on the Clerk who prepared an outline for
me to follow each day. One of the big problems for me is Question Period. I
find that I may easily miss something and it can be embarrassing when a member
raises a point of order about a question or answer. I guess it takes time until
you can pick up on all the fine points.
What is your reaction to un-parliamentary
It is the job of the Speaker to ensure that
the language used does not get out of control. I am perhaps a bit more
sensitive to the language used in the House. Through my past experience as
Chief of the Teslin Band I found that you can never deal with any situation in
anger. You should come prepared to talk and you cannot accomplish anything by
yelling or insulting anyone. Respect and good intentions are needed.
Have you tried to make the office reflect
your status as the first native Speaker?
One of the first things I did was order a
new Speaker's robe. It was made of a light blue material donated by a local
craft store. It has a raven on the back. On the front is a howling wolf on one
side and a flying raven on the other. I wear this robe on Mondays and use the
traditional black one the rest of the week. When I leave the Speakership I
intend to leave the robe behind and hope it will be used by future Speakers. I
also devised a new prayer for the Assembly which I think is more appropriate
for persons coming from different religious denominations. It goes like this:
"O Great Spirit, Creator and Leader of
all People, we are thankful to be gathered here today. 0 Great Spirit, I ask
you to touch and bless each and everyone in this House. Grant that we the
elected members will make only strong, fair and sound decisions On behalf of
the people we represent throughout the Yukon".
Did you consult with the House Leaders?
No, I did not approach it that way. When I
was first going into the House, realizing that I would be the first native
Speaker, I thought that I should bring in something that was different, more on
the native side, but would cover everybody. I showed it to different people and
it was not changed much from what I had first written. I wanted something that
was not only Christian or anything else, I wanted something that would speak
for everybody. I think some members were a bit shocked at first because it was
different from what they had been used to. I contacted a few members on each
side after I first used it and asked their reaction and was told there was
nothing wrong with it. So I have continued to use it.
You were elected President of the Yukon
Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association shortly after being
elected as a Member of the Assembly. What do you feel about the value of the
CPA? Have you learned anything that helps you as a Member or as a Speaker?
It has been very interesting to meet
Speakers from other legislatures and jurisdictions. I am glad to be part of it because
we are all doing much the same job and participating in the sessions and
conferences has been very educational. Although some of the legislatures are
much larger than ours I find many of the subjects we talk about to be similar
such as Question Period, whether Speakers should attend caucus meetings and, if
so, under what conditions and how to handle un-parliamentary language.
Is a political career detrimental to
Every politician must have an understanding
spouse. When you make commitments to the people it takes you away from home.
Without a spouse who understands, it could be very difficult.
I was a single parent for five years so my
children were used to the idea that I had to be away. However, because of my
involvement in politics they are much more knowledgeable about public life than
I was at their age.
Outside of politics I am leader of the
Teslin Tlingit Dancers. We perform at different functions and have travelled to
Saint John, New Brunswick, for the Canada Games and to Vancouver for Expo 86.
There are twenty-one dancers in the group ranging from my eighty-eight year old
father to my two year old daughter. Such activities keep our culture alive and
our family together.