I met the late Johnny Charlie, then chief of the Tetlit Gwich’in, at his family fish camp in the summer of 1982. I’d been canoeing in the Peel watershed.
After more than 30 years, I remember the scent of boughs on the wall tent floor, smiles and laughter, tea, and freshly smoked fish that we ate until we could hardly move. We were welcomed into the country with grace and generosity; it felt good. All the while, Charlie regaled us with stories about the land.
A few years later, Charlie drove me and my family down the Dempster highway after a trip on the Wind River. He told a story at every twist in the road – of places where people were born, lived, hunted, died, and were buried. This land, at the headwaters of the Peel, went to the core of his being, as it does for his people still.
These experiences underscore, for me, the risks that all First Nations people have taken in settling land claims. They have signed away vast tracks of their homelands with faith that land use planning processes, as outlined in the Umbrella Final Agreement, will be fairly implemented.
The Peel Watershed Planning Commission was tasked with conducting broad consultations and ensuring fidelity of the land claims agreements. In its draft recommendations, the commission recommended 100 per cent protection of the Peel watershed. Responding to a request by the Yukon government, it went back to the people and worked out a compromise that allowed for development in 20 per cent of the area. After seven years, it released its final recommendations in 2011.
Instead of accepting the recommendations, or even modifying them, the Pasloski government set up their own cockamamie consultations as a basis to write their own plan. Thanks to this immature approach to governing, we are all saddled with uncertainty, a costly lawsuit, and skyrocketing distrust in government. People don’t like tone-deaf politicians, representing only 40.6 per cent of the vote, bullying the 59.4 per cent that voted against them.
Pasloski and his boys are fond of calling the opposition “radical environmentalists.” It is hardly radical to want a fair implementation of land claims, sustainability of ecosystems, and clean water.
Land claim agreements aren’t just for First Nations; they are for everyone. Mandated processes are vehicles for all Yukoners to come together, hear about First Nations’ relationships with the land, our collective concerns, and build workable consensuses that are good for the majority. This is civil society in action and day-to-day democracy.
The Pasloski government has placed civil society, the land claims agreement and the Yukon economy on the line by provoking a lawsuit with the Nacho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Yukon Conservation Society and CPAWS-Yukon.
In the legislature recently, they chose to make matters worse by reiterating their stubborn refusal to continue the withdrawal of staking in the Peel watershed, pending the outcome of the lawsuit. We’ve already seen the kind of mess that this attitude can create in the on-going saga to protect Tombstone Park.
Investors seem smarter than the Pasloski government. They know:
* That Yukon land is contested.
* That the Yukon is rapidly becoming a poorer place for mining investment (Fraser Institute report).
* That Pasloski’s is becoming known as a rogue government, characterized by instability, unpredictability, secretiveness, arrogance, and lack of transparency – and that these traits create a bad climate for investment.
* That First Nations working together with environmental groups make a powerful coalition with broad public support.
* That, thanks to the precedent setting Schwindt Report from B.C., mineral claims provide no guarantees to the right to mine and that investors should not expect to profit from speculative claims.
Yukoners see that instability and uncertainty will hurt the Yukon economy for years. The people of the Yukon are not against mining, but most insist that there are other values that are sometimes, and in some places, more important.
Louise Profeit LeBlanc once described ethics as things people do such that others tell good stories about them after they are gone. Every Peel River gathering I go to, I hear good stories about Johnnie Charlie and many other elders. But, I’m doubtful that any good stories will come of the Pasloski government’s handling of the Peel River watershed issue – unless they finally choose to listen to the people.
Bob Jickling lives in Whitehorse.