So much for certainty

It seems nobody likes the Yukon government's long-awaited plan for the Peel watershed. Conservationists doubt that the plan, which leaves most of the watershed open to new staking...

It seems nobody likes the Yukon government’s long-awaited plan for the Peel watershed.

Conservationists doubt that the plan, which leaves most of the watershed open to new staking, will succeed in protecting the region’s wilderness character.

Miners, meanwhile, grumble that the plan will burden them with pricey conditions that would make projects in the region unprofitable.

As for First Nation chiefs, they intend to sue the territory for having fallen afoul of signed land-claim agreements in its less-than-forthright handling of the planning process.

A failure of this magnitude wasn’t the work of any single person. It was truly a team effort on the Yukon Party’s part.

Throughout the planning process, government ministers created the impression of feigning impartiality while doing everything in their power to tilt the field in favour of development. No wonder First Nation chiefs feel cheated.

The territory suppressed information that would support conservation efforts. Recall how our former premier, Dennis Fentie, yelled at senior government officials who dared to consider sharing valuable ecological data with planners – not expecting that documentation of this freak-out would be eventually made public in a report by this newspaper.

Later, under our current regime, the government refused to include any supporting numbers in its report on the final round of consultation – perhaps because those numbers indicated broad support for the planning commission’s final plan. When this newspaper dug up those excised numbers, Currie Dixon, the territory’s minister of environment and economic development, memorably declared that “the numbers don’t matter.”

The process also appeared to be gamed early on, when the government let miners engage in a staking free-for-all in the region under review, then later complained that protecting much of the region is impossible without upsetting those same miners.

Also consider all the silly word games played by the government to justify its actions. The Yukon continues to laughably assert that it has merely “modified” the recommended plan, as opposed to rejecting it.

Yet, at least when you look at how much new staking would be allowed, the government’s plan does pretty much the opposite of what the planning commission proposed. It suggested allowing new staking in 20 per cent of the watershed, while the government’s plan opens up about 70 per cent of the region to mineral exploration.

Similarly, the government continues to label areas open to development as “wilderness.” And government politicians still can’t quite bring themselves to say the word “mining” out loud in the context of the Peel. Instead, they continue to resort to the euphemism “balance.”

This mealy-mouthness has been broken up by the occasional flamboyant exaggeration. During the last election campaign, Premier Darrell Pasloski issued his over-the-top warning that protecting most of the Peel would bury the territory in an avalanche of lawsuits launched by miners with existing claims. (The evidence he later offered to support this claim is thin, to say the least.)

Later, Pasloski devoted more than two pages of a budget speech to demonizing conservationists, warning they wanted to essentially turn the whole territory into a park. So much for showing a little statesmanship on a complicated matter that required it.

Yet such punchiness is exceptional. Throughout most of the Peel ordeal, the Yukon Party has typically lacked the courage to say what it means. That, more than anything, is probably what doomed the process.

Maybe if the government hadn’t waited until the planning commission had wrapped up its work to actually say much concrete about what it wanted, there wouldn’t now be such a pervasive sense that the game had been rigged all along. But it’s too late to change that now.

Affected First Nations extinguished their aboriginal rights to the whole region in exchange for things like collaborative land-use planning. The government, for its part, won through land-claim agreements the ability to tell industry it had legal certainty for development. But, thanks to the government’s abuse of the land-use planning process, that’s now out the window.

Thomas Berger, the esteemed lawyer who helped invent the field of aboriginal law in Canada, is helping First Nations with their case over the Peel. Who knows how long this mess will take to unravel, as cases are appealed all the way up to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In the meantime, this legal uncertainty ensures that a huge swath of the Yukon will not see any development any time soon. In a strange way, the Yukon Party has done the work of conservationists for them.