The Fentie government’s relationship with First Nations is disintegrating.
Witness Thursday’s news conference, where the Ta’an Kwach’an Council announced it is preparing to take the Yukon government to court over an agricultural application within the First Nation’s traditional territory.
Worse, Council of Yukon First Nations grand chief Andy Carvill was front and centre at the event.
The Ta’an has a case, said Carvill.
“When I had a chance to review this file, I could see that there is a lack of consultation, in my view,” said Carvill on Thursday.
“That area has been used for generations for hunting, fishing, helping to sustain a traditional way of life that is quickly being lost in the Yukon, not only for First Nations people but non-First Nations people as well.”
The disputed land is a 24-hectare parcel near Shallow Bay on Lake Laberge.
Greg Komaromi, assistant deputy minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, approved an application to turn the parcel into private farmland, overturning a decision by the land application review committee to deny the request.
This came despite a Executive Council Office’s land claims and implementation secretariat recommendation against making the parcel private land.
“At the very least, given the documented concerns regarding access and discussions with the Ta’an Kwach’an Council … we ask that” the grazing lease be maintained until 2019, wrote Lynn Black in an April 6 letter to the agriculture branch.
If the lease is no longer needed for grazing, “perhaps it should be removed from the agriculture program,” Black added.
The area is a “globally significant wetland,” according to conservation groups.
Komaromi’s recommendation requires the application to observe 100-metre setbacks from the ordinary high-water mark of Shallow Bay.
Environment department officials and conservation groups disagree with the agriculture branch about the location of the Shallow Bay high-water mark.
But for the Ta’an, the high-water mark is irrelevant.
The land is sacred, it’s “the heart of our traditional territory,” said Ta’an chief Ruth Massie.
It’s also an historic cremation site, according to one Ta’an member.
But the land was not included in the First Nation’s land claim settlement because the grazing lease had already been granted to local farmer Belle DesRosiers when the settlement was under negotiation.
“The (Umbrella Final Agreement) specifies the fact that there could be no third-party interests or public interests on the lands, so we could not select the land,” said William Asp, chair of the Laberge Renewable Resources Council, who helped negotiate the Ta’an settlement.
“In lieu of that, we asked for first option on the grazing leases once they expired.
“We held that in good faith with the government, in order that we would have first interest when the land was disposed of or when the lease expired.
“We thought we would get that. As it turns out, we weren’t even asked if we were interested.”
The grazing lease was split into three separate leases and passed to Karla DesRosiers and her husband, Len Walchuk, in 2004.
The leases lie next to the DesRosiers’ family business, the Laberge Ranch and Outiftters Ltd.
The leases expire on December 31, 2018, but can be renewed.
Walchuk and DesRosiers are within their legal rights to seek conversion of the leases into to private farmland.
They had to subject their application to public review through the land application review committee, which turned it down.
But Komaromi overruled, and Community Services gave subdivision approval to Walchuk’s application for 24 hectares in December.
Walchuk is now preparing to survey the land and will eventually receive title — unless the Ta’an manages to block it.
The First Nation wants Walchuk’s application scrapped and a moratorium on land disposition instituted for all Ta’an traditional territory until a regional land-use plan is in place, said Massie.
“Our complaint has nothing to do with the proponents,” said Massie.
“Our dispute is with the process.”
The Ta’an first became aware of Walchuk’s intention to take the land to title in January 2005, she said.
The Ta’an opposed Walchuk’s application at the March 2005 meeting of the land application review committee.
The review committee denied the application.
As far as the Ta’an were concerned, that was the end of it, said Massie.
The Ta’an were never notified of Walchuk’s intention to appeal the review committee’s decision, she said.
The government’s agriculture branch sent the Ta’an two letters between the March ruling from the review committee and Komaromi’s decision in August.
A July 14 letter from former agriculture director David Beckman informed the Ta’an that the application would be reviewed in September, and asked the Ta’an to “set up a meeting date by July 29/05.”
The Ta’an was busy planning a Shallow Bay “special management area” proposal, and never responded in writing, said Massie.
“We didn’t think we would have to respond because we attend LARC meetings on a regular basis when they have to do with our traditional territory.
“The (September) meeting never happened, and (Komaromi) made the decision in August, prior to the proposed meeting.”
The Ta’an are challenging the government’s capacity to set aside decisions from the review committee without meaningful First Nations consultation.
And Carvill is in Ta’an’s corner.
“There are problems with the current Yukon government land-disposition process,” said Carvill.
“Chief Massie has been told that 2007 is the earliest the government can sit down and include (First Nations) in any type of land planning process.
“For it to move ahead effectively we need to engage sooner in community land planning processes, instead of it being put off onto the back burner.
“It should be one of the priorities of the Yukon government and Yukon First Nation governments.”
Massie has a meeting scheduled with Premier Dennis Fentie and Resources minister Archie Lang on Monday.
If the Ta’an’s concerns are not addressed at that meeting, the First Nation will consider legal action, she said.