Government on the fly

It must be unsettling working in the Yukon civil service these days. You never know when Premier Dennis Fentie is going to overrule your decisions…

It must be unsettling working in the Yukon civil service these days.

You never know when Premier Dennis Fentie is going to overrule your decisions and unilaterally rewrite government policy on the fly.

Consider Tuesday.

For days, Fentie had publicly sparred with Sam Dion, a Haines Junction man who wanted to develop two hectares of land.

Dion asserted the bureaucracy had refused to approve his land application based on the Larry Paulson case, an agricultural lease that was recently blocked by the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation in Yukon Supreme Court.

The court nixed Paulson’s land application after it ruled the Yukon had not adequately consulted the First Nation before awarding Paulson’s lease.

The decision has caused quite a tizzy in the territory and across Canada, which is why Ottawa has signed on to the Yukon’s appeal.

In light of all this, it is not surprising the Yukon government slowed its land-approval process.

In fact, that’s prudent.

A more rigourous review would likely prevent First Nation court challenges, bringing more certainty to the land-disposition process.

But, land officials had refused to approve Dion’s land application based on the Paulson case.

Nonsense, Fentie said.

Asserting that it never happened, he contradicted information his colleague Archie Lang, the minister responsible for the lands branch, had given Dion.

So, on Tuesday at a public meeting, Fentie was presented with written proof of the land policy in an e-mail lands branch officials sent to Dion.

It rattled Fentie. Provoked a bit of whispering.

And then Fentie revised government policy.

“I don’t care if an e-mail came from the Pope,” he said. “That ain’t the way it is here. In a democracy, cabinet is the decision maker.”

That’s a curious statement.

Sure, cabinet makes decisions. It decides: “The Yukon will make land available.” And the civil service will execute a fair process, available to everyone, to make that land available.

It shouldn’t mean that cabinet will decide who gets the land.

But apparently, as of Tuesday, that’s how it now works in the Yukon. 

Fentie told Dion to bring his application to the minister for approval.

Fentie is clearly worried about investor and developer jitters in light of the Paulson decision — a case that he provoked by off-the-cuff decisions about First Nation traditional territory that he made in his first term.

Now he’s trying to shore up confidence in the territory. Trying to put his earlier decisions back in the box, so to speak.

But he’s doing it through more off-the-cuff decisions. Decisions that undermine officials in the civil service.

Fentie has signaled that politicians dole out Yukon land.

That is, there is no process, only political will.

Land dispositions fall within the whims of the cabinet.

It may prove fast and efficient, but it is also a recipe for abuse.

Hasty land deals within First Nation traditional territory are likely to be challenged in court.

And that’s just going to erode certainty.

It also erodes confidence in the civil service, both from within and without.

It’s bad for everyone.

So Fentie should reconsider his proclamation.

The lands branch should follow a solid policy that allows consultations with First Nations while doling out land fairly and efficiently. (RM)

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