Tough questions about land claims should be welcomed, not condemned

Yule Schmidt It was with interest that I read Liberal Leader Sandy Silver's comments on the opinion piece about land claims which I wrote for the National Post on Feb. 25. Normally I do not respond to comments on my articles. My intent in writing is to

by Yule Schmidt

It was with interest that I read Liberal Leader Sandy Silver’s comments on the opinion piece about land claims which I wrote for the National Post on Feb. 25.

Normally I do not respond to comments on my articles. My intent in writing is to advance debate, not to push my own views as the right ones. As such, I welcome informed counter-arguments, for as the discussion moves back and forth it also moves forward.

But I do not welcome poorly veiled attempts to snag political points at the expense of such debate.

I am mildly offended that Mr. Silver decided to address his rebuttal to the government as opposed to me. Perhaps it was a decision borne of misplaced chivalry, namely the hesitation to insult a lady. Or perhaps it was borne of untimely chauvinism, namely the disbelief that a lady such as myself could conjure up such opinions on her own.

Yet on either count, I assure Mr. Silver that I possess the mental acuity to not only generate but to defend my own opinions.

Perhaps it surprises the Liberal leader that I was able to freely express my thoughts without having them politically vetted, but last time I checked, that chunk of the Constitution that protects freedom of speech had not been deleted.

In fact, rather than be troubled by it, I should think Mr. Silver and others in the opposition would find it comforting to know that a political staffer retains the independence to publish articles as I did. Is that not something we should commend as a society?

If it is not common practice, it is not because it is “denied” by the government, but because of reactions such as Mr. Silver’s: if by sharing my thoughts, the best I can expect in terms of debate is the opportunistic conflation of my opinion with my position, then what’s the point?

As for the content of my article, Mr. Silver either did not read it or did not understand it. I pointed out a historical discrepancy between the initial, stated goal of land claims – certainty – and the current reality of uncertainty with respect to their interpretation.

I pinpointed a significant jump in this uncertainty resulting from the precedent-setting court cases which confirmed that the “honour of the Crown” supersedes the letter of the claims, even on issues which the agreements purported to “settle.” While we take it for granted today, it was not inherent from the beginning that the honour of the Crown would trump the letter of land claims. After all, the Little Salmon court case was launched to ask just that question.

In an interview last week, the renowned aboriginal affairs expert Ken Coates essentially said the same thing: “every paragraph [of the land claims] is contestable,” and prophesized that the Yukon government and First Nations would continue to dispute land claims in court. It’s rather ironic that the Aboriginal Affairs website itself celebrates that comprehensive agreements “provide aboriginal groups with an alternative to going to court to resolve their claims.”

The article was thus primarily an articulation of facts. The only real “opinion” in it was that the first-among-equals status that the honour of the Crown bestows upon First Nations is neither necessary nor desirable in a relationship of equals.

First Nations have proven that they do not need government (or opposition) paternalism, yet paternalism – misguidedly called a “fiduciary obligation” to First Nations – is what the honour of the Crown inherently promotes.

It goes without saying that dealings with First Nations, as with all citizens, should be conducted with integrity, but achieving that should not require special legal provisions. Isn’t it troubling to think that it does?

We should not shy away from debating these kinds of questions, as politically charged as they may be; it is precisely what we should be doing with our time (and our newspaper space). I chose to write on the topic of land claims disputes because it is an important issue facing Yukon, the resolution of which is vital to our social and economic development.

Were there sides of the debate which I did not address? Of course. The issues we face as a territory, much less as a civilization, are far too complex to be distilled into a 700 word article.

But the value of such an article is in triggering more such articles, written from different perspectives on different aspects of the issue. That is how debate advances. That is how society advances.

I would have been glad to see Mr. Silver join the debate by producing a contradictory opinion, but I have yet to hear one from him. Simply decrying a viewpoint without offering an alternative does not qualify as debate. It is an immature tactic that has no place in a politician’s playbook and is certainly not worthy of Yukoners.

Debate is a good thing. It would serve Mr. Silver well to demonstrate he is capable of it.

Yule Schmidt is based in Whitehorse, where she serves as a special advisor to the Yukon government. This article reflects her personal views and not those of her employer.

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