Walking the road together

I came to the Yukon in 2014 to find out how self-government had changed First Nations’ resource management as part of my master’s dissertation for Oxford University.

Julia Duchesne

Special to the News

I came to the Yukon in 2014 to find out how self-government had changed First Nations’ resource management as part of my master’s dissertation for Oxford University. In interviews with First Nations and renewable resource council members, I learned that self-government has brought both opportunities and challenges to First Nations in the Yukon — and that one of the major challenges is the mindset coming straight from the top of the Yukon government.

I now live in the Yukon and can see for myself how the uncertainty in land use planning is affecting our territory. The government has sacrificed not only Yukoners’ time and a lot of our money, but also trust in our leaders and in the land use planning process. Now, years have been wasted in court trying to come to an agreement over the future of the watershed and development in the territory. What will it take to actually implement the plan we end up with after the Supreme Court of Canada rules on the case, and to re-start land use planning?

To begin with, it will take governments that are fully committed to a respectful working relationship. In my research, I heard that YG might be following the letter of the law, but it is not honouring the spirit of the final agreements. One First Nation member said: “We always come back to these arguments with them, ‘Well this is what the UFA says, and this is what our agreement says.’ YG’s response is, ‘No no no, that’s not what we intended it to be, and you’re interpreting wrong.’”

Generally, the people I interviewed felt understood and respected by individual civil servants. But further up the chain of command, that feeling of mutual respect got lost: “Sometimes we’re frustrated because we feel that our voices get lost in the journey up to cabinet,” said one renewable resource council member. There is a sense that First Nation and non-FN governments are coming from “different places, different values,” said a First Nation member. Another participant from a different First Nation put it bluntly: “I think industry calls all the shots in the Yukon government.”

The Peel watershed is one example. One renewable resource council member said: “Land use planning is written out in a certain way in the UFA, and it was carried out, and then it was completely nixed by a government that wanted an appearance of consultation but didn’t really, they still want to have control.” I now live here and know how the uncertainty in land use planning affects the Yukon. Our government has sacrificed not only Yukoners’ time and money, but also our trust. Years have been wasted in court trying to come to an agreement over the watershed. How will we actually implement the plan we end up with, and re-start land use planning?

In the Yukon, people worked hard for many decades to achieve the Umbrella Final Agreement and the 11 final and self-government agreements signed so far. These are bold and powerful documents, a foundation we should be proud to build on. First Nations across the Yukon are doing inspiring work at an incredible pace — in tourism, mining, and green energy — not to mention other areas of economic development that were beyond the scope of my research.

This progress has been made despite challenges like lack of capacity in First Nations governments, unresolved boundary issues and discrepancies between Final Agreements and pre-existing legislation, and conflicts with non-First Nations governments over values and priorities. When I asked about formal dispute resolution mechanisms, one First Nation member suggested: “The court of Canada. It’s the only one that seems to be working.” The territorial government under the Yukon Party did not seem able to relinquish its death grip on the levers of power, so we are not moving forward as fast as we should be. This is not a functional way for our territory to prosper.

The new Liberal government has promised to meet with Yukon’s First Nations within 30 days of taking office. Time will tell whether the new government’s promises lead to improved relationships with First Nation governments. One First Nation member said: “Coming to a land claims agreement was easy, but after that, that’s when the work begins.”

Signing a Final Agreement is not the end of a process but the beginning of a new road — a road that needs to be walked together, or we won’t get anywhere. We need a government that is willing to yield meaningful power to self-governing First Nations and recognizes the opportunities found in true partnership. We need a government that works with First Nations in good faith and strives to embody the spirit of the UFA. If the new government can succeed in doing that, the Yukon will be stronger for it.

Julia Duchesne holds a master’s degree in Environmental Change and Management from Oxford University. After coming to the Yukon in 2014 to research how self-government affects First Nations’ land management, she moved here in 2015 and now calls Whitehorse home.

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