The Yukon government has won a gold medal in an event that you may not even know existed: provoking lawsuits. In an impressive feat, the territory has racked up three of them in three weeks.
In legal circles, we believe you call that a hat trick.
All these cases involve aggrieved First Nations. Two were triggered by the territory’s botched handling of plans for the Peel watershed, while the third was prompted by the government’s intentions to build a new campground near Atlin Lake.
A common thread ties these cases together. It’s that the Yukon government treats the constitutionally-entrenched rights of First Nations to be consulted on matters that affect them as a mere formality, to be checked off after a decision has already been made, rather than engaging these parties in a meaningful way, as if their input actually means something.
In the case of the Peel, the territory ignored seven years of planning talks to produce its own plan for the watershed, which does pretty much the opposite of earlier recommendations by opening up most of the region to mining.
As for Atlin’s First Nation, it first learned about the Yukon’s plans to build a campground on its traditional territory by reading news reports on the subject, and contends it hasn’t had nearly enough say on the matter.
Such complaints are not new. The Yukon Party has a knack for provoking them – and for losing the court cases that result.
This appears to be ingrained behaviour on the part of our leaders, difficult to shake no matter how many times their legal council has a chat with Justice Leigh Gower about the nature of First Nation rights.
Consider another recent lawsuit – after a while, it becomes difficult to keep track –
launched by the Ross River First Nation over its objections to mining laws that allow prospectors to use machinery and explosives on traditional territory without first seeking permission. A court decision forced the territory to change these rules on Ross River’s land, but the Yukon has refused to modify the rules on the traditional territory of the White River First Nation, which is in essentially identical circumstances, as a First Nation without a settled land claim. We suppose another lost lawsuit will be needed to sort that one out.
The court fight with the territory’s francophones, which also resurfaced this week, also fits into this pattern. It’s a victory of sorts for the Yukon government to see the appeals court toss out an earlier order to build a pricey new school for the territory’s French-speaking children, and it’s heartening to hear both parties are now trying to reach an amenable solution, rather than going through another trial.
But wouldn’t it have been much better to avoid the court case in the first place? The public has already footed more than $2 million in legal bills for this one case alone. The government hasn’t been so forthcoming about the costs of its other court battles, but suffice to say plenty has been wasted fighting cases that could have been avoided, had our government possessed a bit more diplomatic finesse. Instead, it’s almost as if the Yukon government goes out of its way to invite these fights, by communicating as little as possible, as late as possible, with affected parties.
As the pile of lawsuits grow, the Yukon Party runs the risk of eroding the belief, broadly shared since the settlement of land-claim agreements, that the Yukon is a legally stable place to do business. That in turn undermines the Yukon Party’s main schtick – that is, that they’re the guys who protect the territory’s economic prosperity. It may all come back to bite them during the next election.