Secrecy once again sabotages our leaders

Is it too much to ask of our territorial leaders that, when they hold a splashy news conference, there is actually something to announce? Apparently, yes.

Is it too much to ask of our territorial leaders that, when they hold a splashy news conference, there is actually something to announce?

Apparently, yes. Consider last week’s appearance of Premier Darrell Pasloski alongside Grand Chief Ruth Massie as they spoke to the contentious issue of having prospectors give prior notice before working on unceded First Nations land.

There was no agreement to be announced. Nor was there a formal plan to reach an agreement. No, instead there were plans to continue talking about making a formal plan to eventually reach an agreement. Which is to say, nothing of substance seems to have been accomplished at all.

“Significant” chunks of the territory would be covered by the new rules as of July, Pasloski said, with the goal of eventually applying similar rules across the territory. But he wouldn’t explain what “significant” meant, or much of anything else. Both leaders only deigned to answer one question from each reporter present before shutting the event down.

So, why serve up such thin gruel? Here are a few hunches.

The announcement followed that chin-wagging ceremony known as the Yukon Forum, in which the territory’s chiefs meet up with our territorial government to discuss matters of importance. Such a meeting had not been held for two years.

Pasloski has recently explained in the legislature that he believes the forum is only a place to discuss matters that all parties happen to agree on. Seeing how Pasloski and the chiefs have lately seemed to agree upon precisely nothing, that helps explain the shortage of forums. And, since the premier finally did dare to meet with the chiefs, he probably felt compelled to announce, well, something, if only as a face-saving move.

Prospectors, who are usually among the darlings of our heavily pro-mining government, reacted angrily to the news. And, surprisingly, unlike the attendees of the premier’s news conference, they actually seemed to know what was going on.

Anyone who seeks to conduct Class 1 work – which includes everything from hand trenching to cutting trails and setting off explosives – already needs to notify the Ross River First Nation for work within its territory, as of December 2013. According to the prospectors’ association, by July similar rules will apply on the land of other Yukon First Nations that, like Ross River, haven’t signed final agreements, and by next year such notifications will apply throughout the territory.

Keep in mind that the prospectors haven’t bothered to actually support these assertions with, you know, evidence. This is a little bit like claiming to have found a gold vein without showing any samples as proof. But you would think that the prospectors would know something about forthcoming changes, as one of the groups primarily affected, and Liberal Leader Sandy Silver told the legislature similar things recently.

Prospectors proclaim that we are about to tumble down a slippery slope. The new rules, they say, could set a precedent of requiring a permit for so much as driving down a bush road or digging a hole in the ground. Hunters, fishermen, campers, outfitters, trappers and woodcutters are next, they warn darkly.

But let’s keep things in perspective. First Nations aren’t steamed about people conducting such light-on-the-land activities without permission. They’re upset that anybody can fire up small machinery, cut trails and set off dynamite in areas that First Nations value for hunting and other activities, on land that First Nations have never ceded, without giving any sort of notification.

The courts agree this is kind of crazy, too, which is how the Ross River First Nation came to win a lawsuit on the matter that forced the government to introduce the new notification requirements on its land. It only makes sense that the same legal issues are in play on the land of other unsigned First Nations. And, as a matter of fairness, extending such provisions to all First Nations would make sense as well.

Yet prospectors do have some legitimate concerns. Their work is often shrouded in secrecy for understandable reasons: you don’t want to stumble upon a promising find, only to have a competitor stake the surrounding area before you, thanks to a clue found in some paperwork you were forced to fill out before heading into the bush. This is probably of particular concern on land owned by a First Nation that has a development corporation with its fingers in mining plays.

It would probably make sense to hive off the more destructive activities, such as detonating explosives, to ensure First Nations receive a heads-up for such work, while allowing lighter activities to continue to be exempt. Apparently, prospectors have proposed as much. Our political leaders are mum on the matter. But if a forthcoming agreement is worth announcing, surely the details of how it would work deserve explaining, too.

Similarly, prospectors assert that the Yukon government struck a memorandum of understanding with chiefs nearly a decade ago to deal with this very issue then. The prospectors call this a “secret” agreement. And it is, as our political leaders won’t say one way or the other whether it exists. Since when have such agreements between governments become classified?

Then there’s the muskox in the room: the enduring bad blood between First Nations and the territory over the badly botched plan for the Peel watershed. Given the many ways in which the Yukon government created the sense that it had ignored the wishes of First Nations in favour of opening much of the region to development, it should be no surprise that chiefs are reluctant to strike any sweeping deal with our premier, especially one that deals with more touchy conflicts with industry.

Perhaps a real agreement was proposed at the forum – say, the one that the prospectors refer to – and some chiefs refused to sign off, leaving Pasloski and Massie to put on braves faces and pretend that something of substance had actually been accomplished.

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