Don’t hold your breath for a Kaska resource breakthrough

The Yukon Party's much-ballyhooed agreement with the Kaska on resource issues should be treated as a qualified success by at least one measure.

The Yukon Party’s much-ballyhooed agreement with the Kaska on resource issues should be treated as a qualified success by at least one measure: it should ensure that one of the Yukon’s most litigious First Nations won’t lob any more court cases the governing party’s way before the next territorial election. That’s thanks to more than $3 million being dribbled out by the territory over the next year. One catch to these payments is that they could stop if a new lawsuit arises.

The agreement clearly fits into a broader strategy launched by the Yukon Party, to sign conciliatory-sounding agreements with the territory’s First Nations in an effort to remediate the government’s badly tarnished image when it comes to cooperating with aboriginal leaders on resource matters. Whether this deal and others like it allow the Yukon Party to wash the stink off itself may hinge on whether these agreements actually achieve something concrete, beyond quieting the chiefs until Yukoners have gone to the polls.

That may not be so easy. Similar agreements have been signed with the Kaska before, with little in the end to show. And it’s a stretch to call the new document an agreement on much of anything, beyond a willingness to sit in the same room and talk. Heck, the two parties can’t even agree on whose rules should govern resource extraction on Kaska land.

Political wrangling within the Kaska is often inscrutable to outsiders at the best of times, and remains particularly opaque at the moment.

Last year, the Kaska announced they planned to craft their own resource laws governing their territory. To this, Pasloski promptly stuck his foot in his mouth by observing that First Nations under the thumb of the Indian Act aren’t considered able to pass their own laws, which many took to be tantamount to saying that the Kaska didn’t have a real government. Just what has happened to plans for these much-touted resource laws, nobody now seems able to say.

That may be explained, in part, by what is politely called the Liard First Nation’s “capacity issues.” The First Nation has in recent years been vocal about how it is under-equipped to scrutinize mining plans being pushed through Yukon’s environmental review pipeline.

The situation seems to have only gotten worse since the First Nation fell under third-party management since autumn of 2014, leaving a federally appointed consultant in charge of its books to help repay more than $700,000 owed to Ottawa. LFN later sacked its lands manager in early 2015, citing its ongoing cash squeeze. If the situation has improved since then, nobody at the First Nation, or at Aboriginal Affairs, is saying.

Then there’s the matter of the chief, Daniel Morris. Where he stands on resource extraction – or pretty much anything else – remains a mystery to the general public, as he’s hardly said a word to reporters since he ran for office more than two years ago. At the time he seemed keen to avoid having to address on the campaign trail his sordid history of having brutally assaulted his wife more than a decade earlier, and he’s continued to keep his head down since winning office. If it’s surprising that he seems to have offered a comment at this week’s announcement, that’s perhaps explained by how the event took place in faraway Vancouver.

Put together the First Nation’s shaky financial footing and its particularly divisive leadership, and it may seem like a tough time to unite residents on the merits of opening up their homeland to greater resource extraction.

The Yukon Party has, in recent years, been particularly boosterish about seeing more oil and gas work done in the Liard Basin. These efforts have only been modestly more successful than the government’s aim to open up the Peel watershed to development – which is to say, they’ve been entirely counterproductive.

When it came to light last May that the LFN’s leadership and the Yukon government had begun talks about the possibility of hydraulic fracturing occurring in the basin, a group of First Nation residents protested in front of the legislature, complaining their leadership had left them in the dark on the subject. It didn’t help that not long before then, a government official accidentally emailed a reporter details of the government’s plans to warm the public to the idea of allowing fracking. Needless to say, thanks to the well-organized efforts of fracking opponents, the practice is now considered politically toxic in the Yukon, and even if it were not, today’s big slump in oil and gas prices have taken any such plans off the table for the immediate future.

None of this changes the fact that the Kaska are among the poorest Yukon First Nations, despite sitting on a wealth of precious metals and oil and gas. It’s entirely conceivable that some well-managed mining or oil-and-gas projects could bring badly-needed jobs and money to the region, without despoiling the environment.

But it seems unlikely the region will undergo any big transformation anytime soon, under the remaining terms of either of this chief or this premier.