Commentary raises many questions

A bit of a tizzy has been produced over the past week by an opinion piece in the National Post that offers a jaundiced view of Yukon's land-claim agreements. The controversy has as much to do with who wrote the piece as its contents.

A bit of a tizzy has been produced over the past week by an opinion piece in the National Post that offers a jaundiced view of Yukon’s land-claim agreements. The controversy has as much to do with who wrote the piece as its contents.

The controversy has as much to do with who wrote the piece as its contents. The author, Yule Schmidt, spends her days working as a special advisor to the premier.

Both Schmidt and cabinet’s head spin doctor maintain that the article was written on her own time, and that it never received her employer’s blessing.

Skeptics wonder otherwise. After all, as a cabinet employee, Schmidt serves at the premier’s pleasure, and could be fired at the drop of a hat. From her standpoint, it would be brash to submit such a piece, which has the potential to make the relationship between the Yukon government and First Nations all the more rocky, without somehow clearing it first.

Yet it wouldn’t serve the interests of Yukon’s cabinet to admit the piece had been approved by them. They would want to maintain the plausible deniability that the premier knew nothing of the article’s production, otherwise the piece would be seen as receiving his tacit agreement.

However, maybe this scenario gives cabinet’s managers more credit than they deserve. After all, why craft such a plan, when the end result probably harms the government? The piece’s timing, published during the big national mining convention in Toronto, couldn’t have helped officials trying to persuade the crowds that the Yukon is a legally stable place to do business.

Then again, you could say the piece’s publication fits into the government’s pattern of behavior of unnecessarily antagonizing First Nations.

In any case, we think the piece is revealing. After all, if Schmidt’s political masters didn’t broadly agree with her views, odds are they wouldn’t pay her to provide them. And it’s hard to not see a certain alignment in how our government claims to respect land claim agreements, but it tends to behave as if they are a nuisance – a view that fits with Schmidt’s arguments.

It’s also refreshing to see such views expressed in a clear, forceful manner, when our government often behaves as if it were allergic to candor.

Given all this, we think our readers deserve a chance to see what the fuss is about and draw their own conclusions. Schmidt initially didn’t want us to reprint it whole, but she’s since come around.

At the risk of overkill, we’ve also published her response to Liberal MLA Sandy Silver’s criticisms. And, for a more complete picture that includes the pieces of the puzzle that Schmidt leaves out, you’ll also want to see our interview with historian Ken Coates.

Schmidt is particularly uncharitable to suggest, however humorously, that Liberal MLA Sandy Silver was motivated by sexism in his attack on her article’s publication. It’s perfectly legitimate for him to ask whether it was ill-advised political strategy for cabinet to allow Schmidt to publish her piece. Similarly, nobody should be shocked that Silver hopes to seek political gain. What business did she think he was in?

There’s also something odd with Schmidt’s reframing of the issue around freedom of speech. The reality is that it’s not unusual for territorial public servants to fear reprisal for publicly expressing views at odds with the Yukon Party.

Heck, this newspaper has enough trouble getting bureaucrats to explain the officially held views of the government on many touchy matters, beyond a few carefully scripted non-answers, particularly when cabinet communications gets involved. So it’s a bit rich to hear a cabinet operative celebrate how she’s free to speak her mind.

Schmidt accurately observes that Yukon’s land claim agreements were supposed to bring legal certainty to the territory, yet the Yukon government now finds itself deluged with lawsuits launched by irate First Nations. She further notes that judges continue to redefine what counts as adequate consultation with First Nations, and concludes that these agreements have become a recipe for never-ending litigation.

What Schmidt ignores is how the Yukon government has often failed to live up to its side of the bargain struck when land claim agreements are signed. Chiefs frequently complain that the territory treats consultation with them as an item to be ticked off after a decision has already been made, rather than engaging in genuine negotiations as equals.

As Coates explains, land claim agreements only work when all parties involved are committed to sitting down at the table and treating one another as adults. Too often, our territorial leaders have failed at this task. That’s why we’ve seen the government hit with three lawsuits by aggrieved First Nations over the course of three weeks.

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