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The real threat to the Yukon's economy

There are a bunch of extremists in the Yukon who appear to be hell-bent on wrecking the economy, and they may not be who you think.

There are a bunch of extremists in the Yukon who appear to be hell-bent on wrecking the economy, and they may not be who you think.

You won’t find them in the offices of the Yukon Conservation Society, nor among the ranks of the territory’s opposition parties. Instead, you’ll spot them behind the frosted glass doors in the legislative assembly, where cabinet ministers keep their offices.

Strange but true: the most slavishly pro-mining territorial government imaginable has managed to become a threat to mining, through its blinkered determination to push its agenda, regardless of how much it manages to tick off influential First Nations and the broader public.

We’ve seen some results from this hard work lately, when Justice Ron Veale confirmed the obvious in his judgement on the Peel watershed debacle. He concluded that the territory bargained in bad faith with First Nations by introducing its own land-use plan in the eleventh hour, rubbishing plans that had been the product of many years of public consultations.

The Yukon Party has always insisted it obeyed the letter of the law during the Peel talks. This is strictly true and totally beside the point, in that Canadian governments dealing with aboriginal people must live up to the intent of the agreements they’ve signed. Our government plainly did not do that. As Veale says, it “betrayed the spirit of the final agreements.”

The right thing for our government to do would be to accept this decision with grace. But that’s pretty much unimaginable, because if the Yukon Party seems to be incapable of doing one thing, it’s admitting that it’s wrong about something - particularly an issue that it has fought so bitterly up until this point.

So you can count on the Yukon Party to appeal this decision. You can also count on them losing, again and again. We’re not experts in aboriginal law, but those who are have been pretty clear about how governments are not allowed to goof around when it comes to the constitutionally-enshrined rights of First Nations, and that’s been the Yukon Party’s approach.

On the bright side, anyone who hoped to see the Peel protected can thank a brainiac named Patrick Rouble for ensuring, however unintentionally, that this would happen. Miners upset with the outcome can also take that up with him.

Rouble was the resources minister of the day who, when pressed for details on what he meant by saying he wanted more “balance” in a plan, simply refused to say. Few doubt that the Yukon Party, then and now, wanted to see much of the Peel developed. But, for whatever reason, Rouble apparently didn’t think it was expedient to say as much aloud. Veale compares this bungling to judges asking for a pay raise, without specifying how much they deserve, or why.

For this ineptitude, Rouble seems to have been, naturally enough, rewarded with a plum job as chair of the Yukon Land Use Planning Council. If the Yukon Party knows how to do one thing well, it’s reward its buddies. (This appointment was technically made by Ottawa. But, when one of our reporters once phoned a federal representative to pry for details on the process, we were told that as far as Ottawa was concerned, this pick was made by the territory.)

Now, Veale has ordered that the government may only slightly modify the planning commission’s final recommended plan, which would see most of the watershed off-limits to development. In other words, we’re at the same junction we would be at if the government had simply agreed to give First Nations what they wanted. Well, not quite the same: much public money has been frittered away in a useless court battle, and much bad blood has been created between the Yukon government and residents who strongly desire to see the Peel protected. Way to go, team.

You would hope after making such a huge mess once, the government would avoid a similar mistake in the future. No such luck. Instead, it looks as if the Yukon Party is applying precisely the same disastrously self-defeating tactics, and this time it could succeed in throwing into question new mining developments across the entire territory.

We speak, of course, about the controversial amendments to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act now being debated in Parliament. Until recently it had been a bit of a mystery why Premier Darrell Pasloski was the most outspoken proponent for what was, after all, a federal piece of legislation. Now we have an answer: most of the controversial changes, proposed after a long public consultation process had already wrapped up, were suggested to the feds by none other than our premier.

Yes, that’s right: it was Pasloski’s idea to do an end-run around his own constituents and keep the public in the dark about changes that were, until recently, kept secret from ordinary residents, and that now threatens to trigger another court case launched by upset First Nations. So much for open and accountable government.

While Pasloski purports to have made these recommendations to strengthen the economy, miners are publicly fretting it will only undermine their industry. Paul West-Sells, the boss of the company that hopes to exploit the mammoth Casino copper play, has written to Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt expressing his worries that his company’s own careful work to keep affected First Nations on-side will be torched by the current controversy.

Pasloski once accused conservationists who sought to protect the Peel of being economic saboteurs. Maybe it’s time for him to look in the mirror and consider how counterproductive his efforts to be a champion for industry have been.