The Supreme Court of Canada agreed yesterday to hear the case that pits the Yukon government against aggrieved First Nations and conservationists over the fate of the Peel watershed. In doing so, the top court ensured that this long-running controversy, which helped frame many debates during the last territorial election, will once again be an issue when voters head to the polls by this autumn.
This is bad news for the Yukon Party, although, by many measures, the court’s decision is almost irrelevant at this point. No matter which way the Supreme Court judges ultimately lean, it will remain pretty much unimaginable that a mining project will proceed in the Peel within the foreseeable future. After all, First Nation opposition is effectively a deal-breaker for any mine proposal, and the
Yukon Party’s various misdeeds throughout the Peel planning process only succeeded in galvanizing the desire of First Nations to see the region remain protected as wilderness.
Successive Yukon Party governments, all slavishly devoted to the mining industry, deserve their share of the credit for bungling this file in such a spectacular manner. But it’s our current premier, Darrell Pasloski, who has served as the team captain for the past term, and during that time he has succeeded in accomplishing the equivalent of scoring a hat trick on your own net. While it’s certainly not the legacy he sought, Pasloski deserves to be remembered as the man who protected the Peel watershed.
We should remember that Pasloski fought the last territorial election by offering an implausible promise that he would craft a plan for the Peel that would somehow satisfy all involved. He then pushed through a plan that was pretty much the opposite of what had been long entertained by the planning commission by leaving most of the watershed open to development.
First Nations, who traded their unextinguished aboriginal rights for such things as a meaningful say in land-use planning talks, have rightfully viewed the Yukon Party’s actions as a betrayal of the spirit of Yukon’s land claim agreements. Successive court judgments have now reached the same conclusion, even the latest, which offered a remedy more in line with the Yukon Party’s tastes. The government’s justification that this long-running court battle will yield a useful precedent is ridiculous, since it seems quite unlikely that a future government will ever make the same mistake of running roughshod over Yukon’s collaborative land-use planning process in such a flagrant way.
The Yukon Party probably calculated that it had little to lose when it came to alienating voters strongly in favour of conservation, as these Yukoners would likely support one of the opposition parties anyhow. But as the Peel case festered, it began to undermine one of the Yukon Party’s central claims – that they could be trusted as good stewards of the economy. It turns out that playing nicely with Yukon’s First Nations is a requirement for that job.
Pasloski later cemented his image as someone with a knack for ticking off Yukon’s chiefs with his support of Bill S-6, a controversial federal bill that served to shorten timelines for the Yukon Environmental and Socioeconomic Assessment Board, as well as to strengthen the hands of the federal and territorial governments in setting assessment rules. The public was kept in the dark about these changes until the moment the bill was tabled in the Senate, and First Nation chiefs, who thought they were having meaningful talks behind the scenes, were surprised to see several controversial changes sprung on them at the last minute.
Pasloski, with a characteristic lack of forthrightness, always insisted he had little to do with the bill, which is, strictly speaking, federal jurisdiction. But it later came out most of the controversial changes were proposed by his own government. Another court case ensued, and the new Liberal government in Ottawa tabled legislation this week that would overturn the contentious sections.
Of course, Pasloski will be remembered at the end of his first term in office for much else – as the premier who was unable to persuade the City of Whitehorse to let him build a big, fancy outdoor sports complex for them, who frittered away many years before getting around to spending the federal government’s affordable housing cash, and whose characteristic decide-first, consult-later leadership approach has made plans for a new continuing care centre just the latest debacle. But it is his handling of the Peel and Bill S-6 debacles that sealed Pasloski’s reputation as the guy who would do almost anything for miners, and who probably ended up hurting them more than anyone else could. By making a mockery of the spirit of Yukon’s land-claim agreements, our premier has helped erode the territory’s claim that mining investors needn’t worry about political stability.
Last election the Yukon Party had the benefit of having a new leader who could say he was making a break from the political controversies that dogged his predecessors. This time around, Pasloski will have to own his legacy over the past five years, and his party will have to make do with touting a slick new logo. That will likely end up being a far more difficult sell.
So long, and thanks for all the fish
The newspaper gods, with their stodgy conventions, typically frown upon an editorial writer referring to himself in the first-person singular, but I will risk their wrath with this brief personal note, for this is the last editorial I’ll be writing for the Yukon News.
I’ve spent eight wonderful years in the Yukon, and four of those years occupying the editor’s seat of this newspaper. It’s time to move on. Suffice to say that for primarily family reasons I’ll be shoving off for a hot, crowded corner of the country that’s oddly devoid of mountains, and even more oddly populated by a great number of Canadians who never got the memo that they lost Canada’s geographic lottery. That is to say, southern Ontario – the dreaded homeland of all those bleeding-heart, big-government types who have recently moved here, as some like to harrumph. You’ll find yourself right at home, this same crowd may sniff.
They may be surprised to learn I’ve never lived in that place, but instead grew up in the land without winter, on southern Vancouver Island, and came to the Yukon after spending several years in the land where winter only rarely leaves, on southern Baffin Island in the eastern Canadian Arctic.
It only takes a few years of witnessing the widespread, grinding poverty of Nunavut to realize how much many Canadians take for granted. Yukon’s problems – which are by no means trivial – pale by comparison. Many Yukoners, especially those who enjoy many material comforts in Whitehorse, will never realize how spoiled they are.
Of course, I’ve been spoiled too. I’ve had the run of one of Canada’s better community newspapers, and the freedom to follow my own conscience while writing editorials. I’ve also had the privilege of having many readers patient enough to tolerate my invariably over-long noodlings on these pages. To that, I owe you all a big thanks.