the road to certainty on the peel

Seven-year Peel watershed public consultation and planning process: $.16 million. Feeling the love at Mineral Exploration Roundup: priceless.

Seven-year Peel watershed public consultation and planning process: $1.6 million. Feeling the love at Mineral Exploration Roundup: priceless.

Debra Wortley, an official with the Yukon’s oil and gas branch, told a public meeting in Tagish last week that there is no way to stop hydrocarbon exploration from going ahead in the Whitehorse Basin. The best she could offer was, “If we can mitigate your concerns, we’ll mitigate your concerns.” Her colleague, Richard Corbet, demonstrated the branch’s powers of mitigation when he promised that any earthquakes caused by fracking would be “teeny weeny ones.”

Here, the Yukon government is demonstrating a new level of fiscal responsibility: skip the costly public-input round and send out bureaucrats to offer a fait accompli. It’s quicker, cheaper and a good deal more honest than the policy pursued during the Peel watershed consultations, which was to spend millions on a compromise plan and then toss it in the shredder when it didn’t tell the government what it wanted to hear.

The Yukon’s Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers announced last week, “We’re not going down the road of banning mining in an area the size of Nova Scotia.” The area in question is, of course, the Peel River watershed and it comes as no shock that the Yukon Party is in favour of development there, despite its candidates’ coy refusal to talk about it during last year’s election. What did take some observers by surprise was the government’s curious assumption that the final decision is its alone to make.

As explained on the Yukon government’s own web page: “Each First Nation Final Agreement is a treaty recognized in section 35 of the Constitution Act, 1982 and therefore takes precedence over other laws.” The Peel watershed planning region is in the traditional territory of four First Nations, and all of their Final Agreements mandate consultation over land use. When the government did an end run around the Peel plan, it left the First Nations with a choice: either go to court or abdicate sovereignty over their lands forever.

In an economy driven by booms and busts, the Yukon today is seeing one of its biggest booms ever. Retail outlets are buzzing, buildings are popping up everywhere, rental accommodations are full to bursting, and even the smiles on the real estate agents are genuine. At the same time, housing costs have soared, availability has plummeted and the food bank can barely keep up with demand. The economy is running hot and our social support systems are stretched to breaking point.

So why throw down this gambit? Why did the Yukon Party trash an expensive, lengthy planning process that had, at last count, 75 per cent support among Yukoners, only to get caught up in a court case that will inevitably cost the public millions more, regardless of who wins? Is the already overheated economy desperate for the boost it would get from a whole Nova Scotia full of minerals and hydrocarbons?

If any explanation presents itself for the government’s stance on the Peel, it’s the impulse to dance with those who brung them. Mining companies have put their faith in the Yukon Party, and their money where their faith is, to the tune of $47,000 since 2007, not including contributions from individuals in the industry. It doesn’t sound like much in the grand scheme of election spending, but at around 25 per cent of the party’s budget, it’s enough to matter.

Asked whether political contributions make his party beholden to mining companies, Premier Darrell Pasloski replied: “Absolutely not.” It makes you wonder, how would they act if they were beholden? What if the Yukon Party, instead of being the unbiased broker we see today, were actually influenced by the tremendous support it has among mining companies? How would our hypothetical government behave?

One thing you would expect them to do is to trash the Peel plan. The final report only called for development in 45 per cent of that Nova Scotia-size wilderness, so a government beholden to mining interests would surely have intervened. Oh, they’ve done that haven’t they? Just like they’ve skipped the public consultations on oil and gas and proceeded directly to information sessions.

Looking at these facts, you might be tempted to conclude that the Yukon Party is in the pocket of resource-extraction companies or that it came to office with a hidden agenda – even if it was hiding in plain view. But cut it some slack. This government took power with only two returning cabinet ministers, one of whom is clearly not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. Maybe it just doesn’t get it. Maybe it believes that winning the election gave it the whole Yukon to do with what it likes for five years.

Somebody straighten it out, will you? Try and explain what a constitution is and what “precedence” means. Don’t let it kiss away millions more tax dollars on a court case it can’t win. The mining companies want “certainty.” Give it to them.

No pasaran! Isn’t that certain enough?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.