To nobody’s surprise, the Yukon government has decided to appeal the court decision over the fate of the Peel watershed. After all, to do otherwise would risk conceding that the Yukon Party had hopelessly botched its handling of the planning talks and betrayed the spirit of the treaties signed with Yukon First Nations.
This all happens to be true. But it would have taken uncharacteristic bigness of our political leaders to admit as much.
Resources Minister Scott Kent instead insists that the appeal is being fought to seek clarity on the question of whether democratically elected governments have final say over public lands covered by regional planning talks. This is hooey. The Yukon government would have had final say over its share of the Peel – which is to say, nearly all of the vast region – had it participated in good faith during planning talks. It did not.
Instead, the Yukon Party ministers of the day, over nearly seven years of planning talks, refused to spell out in concrete detail what they sought in the Peel plan. They wouldn’t say how much of the area should be open to development, or which parts, despite being repeatedly pressed on these crucial points.
Only once the planning commission’s work was wrapped up did our current government see it fit to explain it disliked the commission’s plan so much, and it intended to turn it on its head, nearly inverting the ratio between protected areas and space open to development.
As Justice Ron Veale surmised, to allow the government to dream up its own plans from scratch at the end of the planning process makes a mockery of the idea that First Nations should have a meaningful say in such plans. This conclusion should surprise nobody. The courts have long been clear that when a conflict emerges between the spirit and letter of the law, the spirit prevails on matters of aboriginal rights.
Yet our government can’t bear to admit it made a mistake, and so it continues to fight a hopeless court battle that it is sure to ultimately lose. In doing so, the Yukon Party may reinforce the growing sense that its inflexible dealings with First Nations are doing the territory’s business interests more harm than good. That’s bad news, because it undercuts the Yukon Party’s self-image as the defenders of the economy.
As with the case of the botched efforts to ram through controversial changes to Yukon’s regulatory regime, with the Peel, the Yukon government has managed to create uncertainty where none needed to exist. What are potential investors in the Yukon to make of a territorial government that continues to fight court battles with aggrieved First Nations over resource development, and continues to lose?
We have lately heard a succession of prominent businesspeople publicly expressing this very concern. Shaken investor confidence could impact not only the highly speculative mining plays in the far-flung Peel watershed, but also ones far closer to existing transportation routes and power supplies that could conceivably be developed in the near future.
This elevation of fantasy over pragmatism has been characteristic of Premier Darrell Pasloski’s handling of the Peel mess. Early on, he promised to deliver a plan that would please all involved – as if such a thing were possible, when both wilderness paddlers and First Nation residents seek to keep the same spots pristine that miners want to dig up in search of shiny metal.
Similarly, rather than acknowledge that the territory’s northern First Nations have a deep attachment to the region and profound reasons for wanting to keep it undeveloped, our premier has accused those dastardly, meddling conservationists from Outside of trying to sabotage our economy.
Enough people were willing to tolerate this hokum while the territory’s economy was booming, thanks to high metal prices. But now the economy has tanked, and First Nation legal fights suddenly look like an unwelcome drag on any recovery.
Some governments are able to adjust to new circumstances and change course accordingly. Others just keep doing what they’ve always done. We all know which sort we have.