By Ken Coates and Amanda Graham
Canada has discovered the art and mystery of consultation. The processes – familiar to all Yukoners – of land claims negotiations, government planning (remember Yukon 2000?), duty to consult and accommodate, and the imperatives of 21st-century politics have had a profound effect on governance and political life. Add to this the speed of the Internet and the power of social media and we find ourselves in an age of mobilized public opinion and engaged citizens.
Yukoners and other northern Canadians are at the forefront of the broader global transition to consultation-based democracy. The process of land claims negotiations, which started largely behind closed doors, was pulled by First Nations and territorial politicians into full public view.
The Yukon 2000 process expanded the range of consultations to include visioning the future and planning for economic growth and sustainability. The Umbrella Final Agreement codified extensive consultation commitments before the rest of the country became accustomed to greater citizen engagement with political and governance systems.
The territorial and, indeed, the national political processes have not yet fully internalized the culture of citizen consultation. The electoral process appropriately leaves elected officials in a final decision-making position, with authority over the civil servants charged with implementing those political decisions.
Many groups, however, see consultation as providing an effective veto over government action. If there is sufficient opposition, the argument goes, the government must back down from their plans. This is neither legally or constitutionally sound – elected governments have the right to operate within their constitutional limits.
The culture and power of consultation remains a work in progress. Initially intended as a means of getting feedback on government proposals, community consultations are increasingly taking on overtones of an alternative political process, a type of binding referendum. When a major initiative, from a new government program to a resource development, generates strong and consistent criticism, governments routinely find themselves facing what is effectively an additional opposition force, often with considerable moral authority and substantial public support.
The Yukon has one of the most elaborate political cultures in Canada, combining standard political structures and processes with constitutionally protected procedures for First Nations engagement and an emerging system of broader consultations. The territory is a numerically small political community with broad familiarity with issues, proponents and critics. Yukoners care about what happens around them and have strong motivations to engage with government issues. In the years to come, the Yukon will probably emerge as a national, if not global, model for the politics of formal consultation and community engagement.
More and more, politicians, civil servants and the public at large are being asked to come to terms with the realities and possibilities of consultation. In the territorial arena, all actors face new challenges to incorporating open, fair and appropriate consultation processes. Consequently, there is a growing need for deeper understanding of the strengths of informal and formal consultation and for the prospects of including community engagement – in limited and legitimate ways – in political decision making.
What is underway, in the Yukon as well as more broadly, represents a profound transformation of the political process. The intersection of elected governance, partisanship, aboriginal rights and the ease of mobilizing public engagement will take years to shake out. The process of getting there will be challenging, occasionally messy and controversial. In the end, with the Yukon at the lead, we are in the process of redefining politics, governance and the very role of the citizen in public affairs.
The Northern Review, a Yukon College-based scholarly journal, takes note of this important political transformation. Earlier this year, we received a manuscript submission from researchers at the University of Saskatchewan that examines consultation and decision-making process -“Fixing Land Use Planning in the Yukon Before It Really Breaks: A Case Study of the Peel Watershed.”
Following the recommendations of peer reviewers, we accepted the article for publication in our Fall 2013 issue, expected December 2013. We have now published it open access as an advance online article: www.yukoncollege.yk.ca/review.
Please feel free to download the article and engage with the authors. The Northern Review hopes that, as a result, the discussion will further the conversation here in the territory on the rapidly emerging political culture of consultation and engagement. It is time for everyone to get ready for the future.
Ken Coates is an editor of The Northern Review and the research chair in regional innovation of the Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy at the University of Saskatchewan. Amanda Graham is also an editor of the Northern Review and instructs for the University of the Arctic and the school of liberal arts at Yukon College.