Here we go again

Bit by bit, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski is doing more than anyone in recent memory to cripple the territory's mining industry by provoking a series of lawsuits with aggrieved First Nations.

Bit by bit, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski is doing more than anyone in recent memory to cripple the territory’s mining industry by provoking a series of lawsuits with aggrieved First Nations.

The latest looming court battle threatens to undermine public confidence in Yukon’s social and environmental assessment process for mining projects. It’s a big enough worry that the boss of the territory’s only operating hardrock mine warns it could spell “the end of mining in the Yukon.” Even if this is exaggeration, there’s little doubt that the controversy will do more serious damage to the territory’s reputation as a stable place to do business.

Pasloski’s response? Full steam ahead.

In broad strokes, it looks awfully like the Peel watershed mess all over again: the Yukon government waited until late in the game to push for controversial changes to resource regulations. This has left Yukon’s First Nations, who signed land claim agreements with the understanding they’d have a meaningful say in such things, understandably peeved.

Our premier is quick to note that the latest run-in is provoked by federal, rather than territorial, legislation. This glosses over the fact that half of the controversial changes were proposed by his government. And does anyone doubt that if Pasloski asked for these amendments to be pulled, they would be?

Instead, Pasloski stuck with his guns during a legislative committee hearing on the matter recently held in Whitehorse. That’s despite the fact that the hearing even heard from miners pleading for the amendments to be put aside, for fear they may jeopardize their projects. Talk about tone-deaf.

Mutual mistrust is at the heart of this dispute. The proposed changes in question would hand the Yukon government more powers over the territory’s assessment board. Chiefs don’t trust the Yukon Party to exercise these powers wisely, and who can blame them, given the way the proposals were introduced? Not during the public five-year review of Yukon’s assessment laws, but instead late in the game, and for quite a while without the knowledge of First Nations.

Pasloski has urged chiefs to sit down with him to talk through their differences. But, as one chief has said, “it’s a little late for that.” Indeed. If the premier considered chiefs to be genuine partners in governing the territory, he would have made such an overture before making his proposals to Ottawa, rather than at a time when the bill looks set to soon become law.

The premier is right about one thing: there’s enough blame to be spread around beyond him. Yukon’s MP, Ryan Leef, and our senator, Dan Lang, deserve their fair share of scorn. In particular, it’s outrageous that these controversial changes were kept secret up until the moment the bill was tabled in the Senate. So much for either of our federal Conservative representatives keeping the public in the loop about the goings-on in Ottawa.

The contentious changes would, among other things, allow the federal minister or his territorial counterpart to set binding policy for environmental assessments, as well as decide when such assessments can be waived. It’s not hard to understand why First Nations would view these changes with such suspicion, given the way they were introduced. Nor is it hard to see why people would question how the Yukon Party, with its unbridled enthusiasm for mining, would exercise these new powers.

Plans to enshrine in law the length of assessment deadlines, meanwhile, just seems odd. Some miners have moaned that the current assessment regime has seen growing wait times. But it’s far from clear that the proposed changes would fix this problem. Indeed, as the chair of Yukon’s assessment board noted at the hearings, there are good reasons to worry the changes may actually lead to longer waits.

Currently, projects assessed at the designated office level typically see waits of two months. Our legislators plan to set the deadline for such projects at nine months. This could create pressure on assessors to extend the deadlines for First Nations and the public to have their say, the chair has warned.

Assessments for bigger projects at the executive level, meanwhile, would be capped at 16 months. However, assessors say if they suspect a review will take longer than that, they will have no choice but to shift more work to an earlier stage, before the assessment clock starts.

In short, there’s little to be gained and much to be lost for miners in our parliamentarians plowing ahead with the controversial changes. Yet, with our premier’s firm insistence, it shouldn’t be surprising if they go ahead and do so. With supporters like this, miners may wonder, who needs enemies?

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