The Peel: the public, First Nations, UFA be damned

In a previous commentary, I discussed why the Peel Plan is good public policy. In short, it achieves the Umbrella Final Agreement's goals, it respects the stated interests of First Nations and the Yukon public...

by David Loeks

In a previous commentary, I discussed why the Peel Plan is good public policy. In short, it achieves the Umbrella Final Agreement’s goals, it respects the stated interests of First Nations and the Yukon public, it is based on sound science and it preserves all future options for Yukoners, including the resource development sector. It is a responsible and sound compromise.

The so-called “eight principles” announced by the Yukon government are bad public policy because they are unprincipled and reckless.

Firstly, the “principles” undermine democracy. The First Nations and the majority of Yukoners spoke of their interests clearly in many, many ways. Because their interests collided so starkly with those of the mining industry, the planning commission crafted a nuanced, balanced compromise.

Protecting the Peel was a consequence of the planning process, not its objective. By asking the public for input, and then ignoring it, the Yukon government is encouraging cynicism, apathy and withdrawal from Yukon citizens.

As Pete Neilsen wrote in a recent letter, only “an infantile moron” will ever have faith in Yukon government consultation. The good faith that citizens have in the processes of their government is essential to democracy.

Unfortunately, it is apparent that the Yukon government did not participate in good faith, as its “principles” contradict cornerstones of the Peel plan that it accepted or pretended to.

The “principles” undermine the UFA. This is really serious. The UFA is the law of the land and it is an agreement for all of us. It has provided Yukoners with peace, stability and clarity for 17 years. It is the basis for our prosperity.

In general terms, the First Nations relinquished claim to most or all of the Yukon in exchange for clear title to a minor fraction of it and an understanding that they would have an effective partnership with the Yukon government in managing lands and resources.

The land use planning process is a cornerstone of this. By undermining this agreement, the Yukon government has recklessly put at risk the legal certainty and social stability that we all enjoy. Even the mining industry might understand this when they recall the confrontations that paralyzed parts of B.C.

Other Yukon First Nations are sensible to be wary and skeptical about planning with a partner that respects the UFA process so little. In so many words, the Yukon government has said: “The public be damned. The First Nations be damned. The UFA planning process be damned. We’re going to do this in our shop, our way.”

The “principles” are based on bad science or none at all. The “special protection for key areas” is code for a scattered assembly of postage stamp-sized sites. No reputable biologist will agree that this approach will protect biodiversity and abundance in this landscape.

Worse, by suggesting that the North Yukon Plan is an apt template for the Peel plan and that “managing intensity of use” will protect resource values and competing interests, the Yukon government is glossing over critical differences:

1) the North Yukon Plan had large protected areas already established that safeguarded biodiversity and wilderness landscapes;

2) the mountain topography of the southern half of the Peel will force access roads into the river corridors – threatening key habitat for many wildlife species and destroying their usefulness to wilderness tourism. Linear disturbances in the river corridors are inevitable if road access is to be provided to claims. Habitat fragmentation is the consequence.

The “principles” are based on bad economics. We do not need the resources of the Peel watershed to have prosperity in the Yukon – we are only 35,000 people and our resource base is ample.

The only economic activity to expect from the mining sector is in exploration, which is already serviced by air access. The plan permits the 8,400 existing claims to be accessed by air and explored as they always have been. When and if economically developable claims are ever proven, there will be time enough to reconsider the question of access and it is likely by then that technology and economic conditions will be very different.

The main beneficiary of opening the Peel to industry now will be the promoters of junior mining stocks. This is not sustainable development.

The “principles” promise what they can’t deliver. In fact, they say the opposite of their real purpose. They deny First Nations their stated interests and they circumvent established planning processes and then speak of respecting First Nation final agreements.

They claim that they can conserve wilderness characteristics while opening the region to road access and development, flouting the definition of wilderness (what definitions?) in their own Environment Act.

They would erode the operating environment of outfitters and wilderness travel businesses, yet claim to “respect the importance of all sectors of the economy.”

They will firmly slam the door on the asset most economically important to our grandchildren – the wilderness status of the Peel – and yet they call it “future looking.” They reject a compromise plan and open the door to industry while claiming to balance competing interests.

The Peel commission crafted a compromise while grappling with the fact that not all interests are compatible. The so-called “principles” whitewash this hard truth.

The Peel watershed plan accepts that society is deeply divided about the future of this region and that the competing interests are, in fundamental ways, incompatible. In support of the public interest, it compromises by facing these facts with a plan that preserves future options for us and for our children’s children.

The Yukon government’s “eight principles” and its advertising campaign is a “bait and switch.”

Some insiders will benefit; the majority will be holding an empty bag.

It is a sad fact that outside of the three national parks, the Peel watershed is about what remains of pristine landscapes in the Yukon.

David Loeks is chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission