by David Loeks
Premier Darrell Pasloski and Resources Minister Brad Cathers have complained that few Yukoners participated in the Peel planning commission’s consultation processes. They touted their “open house” format as better, since in their view, Yukoners were intimidated by the commission’s “town hall” approach. Since those consultations ended several years ago, let’s recall how they were carried out so that we can make a fair comparison.
The Umbrella Final Agreement chapter on land use planning provides one of the few opportunities for citizens to be directly and meaningfully involved in a democratic process that matters. Effective land use planning relies on a dialogue between a citizen-based commission and the public. The objective of planning is to promote the public good – how else can this be achieved than through sustained two-way communication?
The Peel commission relied on well-advertised and well-attended public meetings. It also held meetings with stakeholders collectively and individually, interviews and meetings with individuals, meetings with government agencies and committees, and meetings with experts in various fields. We solicited letters, emails, and telephone calls from all comers.
We published on our website all documents and comments we received, all reports we commissioned, all products we wrote, and minutes of our meetings. The commission drew attention to these sources of information by press releases and interviews. The process was completely transparent. Nothing happened behind closed doors.
By contrast, the Yukon government’s three “concept” alternatives were derived completely in-house and unveiled with a flourish. The commission learned as it went along, based on its research and the many submissions and other feedback it received. As a result, it adapted its proposals and tested them repeatedly in the public forum. This evolution – this willingness of the commission to consider experience and new information – is evident in the progression of its documents. There are significant changes from the planning scenarios to the draft plan, from the draft plan to the recommended plan, and from the recommended plan to the final recommended plan.
The commission had an open door – through it walked Yukon citizens of all stripes. Also present were the chamber of mines, the wilderness tourism association, the prospectors association, the Klondike Placer Miner’s Association, the Yukon Tourism Industry Association, and the outfitters association. We heard from the conservation organizations, from Ducks Unlimited and from chambers of commerce. Individual companies also weighed in. These included Yukon- and Outside-based mining companies (Chevron too, the owners of the Crest Deposit), as well as tourism, transport, and service companies. The governments of several municipalities sent their views. And so did the agencies and representatives of the Yukon government, the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, and the Tetlit Gwitchin of N.W.T.
Was this inclusive? Ask yourself: who was missed? Was this hurried? It unfolded over seven years. Did it exclude anyone? I never heard this complaint, even through back channels. No point of view was absent from the microphone at the public meetings, which were jammed packed. And for those too shy to speak in public they could either write to us or see us privately. The recent open houses, on the other hand, were feebly attended and did not draw from a broad public base.
Out in the professional world of consultation the, “open house” is known as the tool of choice when you need to do something with much glitter and little fuss. The open house can edit its information depending on the individual, rather than insuring that everyone hears exactly the same story. The open house doesn’t let any criticism by any one person be heard by any other. There is never any collective sentiment in the room, no need to elaborate when confusion reigns, and best of all, no embarrassment when flaws are exposed. The citizens are passive, their comments reduced to yellow sticky notes on a wall.
By contrast, the town hall format is citizen-based democracy at its best. Yukoners are able to see, hear, and exchange views with their neighbours and fellow citizens unfiltered by government. A powerful and healthy consequence is that the humanity of people becomes evident. At the commission’s meetings, participants frequently came to understand their opponents as reasonable people with legitimate concerns.
Out of the give-and-take of these meetings plus other consultations, came an understanding of the “public good” – as expressed by the public. The commission’s final recommended plan did not please everyone 100 per cent – it was, after all, a reasoned compromise. It advances the public good by preserving future options for development and/or conservation.
How do we know we got it right? Over 80 per cent of the Yukon public supported it, then and now. This was evident in the commission’s consultation, it was evident in a professional survey conducted in 2009, and it is evident in the current results of the Yukon government’s own process.
If this is not enough to determine sound government policy, what is?
David Loeks is the former chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission.