What’s the big secret?

Last Friday's Yukon News reported that the "eight principles" of the Yukon government's new plan to open the Peel River watershed to mining had been drafted against advice from the departments of Tourism and Environment.

Last Friday’s Yukon News reported that the “eight principles” of the Yukon government’s new plan to open the Peel River watershed to mining had been drafted against advice from the departments of Tourism and Environment. By means of an access-to-information request, Liberal Leader Sandy Silver uncovered emails in which officials speak of “frustrated staff” and the need to “manage expectations.” One email comments, “Interesting that this department has to get the planning ‘principles’ from a news release.”

To recap the issue: the Peel watershed is a wilderness area roughly the size of Scotland, prized by First Nations, big game outfitters, hunters, and wilderness tourism operators for it’s near-pristine condition. Mineral-rich, the area is also coveted by miners, and has recently undergone a five-year public review mandated by the Umbrella Final Agreement, a treaty between Canada, Yukon, and Yukon First Nations.

Miners wanted to explore and mine the area, First Nations and others wanted it closed to development. In a hard-won compromise the planning commission suggested that 20 per cent of the region be open to development. A further 25 per cent would receive interim protection, subject to review every 10 years.

Close to the end of the process, the Yukon Party government stepped in with a plan of its own, mandated by nothing but its belief that mining and development trump all other considerations. The new plan would allow roads, mining, and oil and gas explorations in the Peel. Though vague, the principles are best characterized by Principle 6: “We support active management of the landscape rather than prohibitions to use and access.”

An internal memo from the Department of Tourism points out that wilderness tourism in the Peel “depends on maintaining important resources … intact ecosystems, high quality wilderness landscapes.” The News article describes Silver’s attempts to question Tourism Minister Mike Nixon as to why he supported the new plan when his department clearly did not. Brad Cathers, the minister responsible for making sure no inconvenient question gets an answer, stepped in to respond that he grew up in the tourism industry, and therefore no one else knows anything about anything.

It’s not clear whether Cathers has undergone training with his Ottawa counterpart, Dean Del Mastro, or whether he simply stays up late nights studying the parliamentary secretary to the prime minister’s moves in the House, but clearly Cathers occupies the same place in territorial conservative politics as Del Mastro inhabits in the bigger pond: minister of obfuscation, obnoxious bullying, and shifting the blame. True to form, Cathers made sure that Silver got not one straight answer on the Peel memos.

And then, in Wednesday’s paper, we learned that the Yukon government has tabled amendments to the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, the same act under which Silver acquired those telling memos on the Eight True Principles. Can you guess whether the amended act gives Yukoners more, or less access to information?

Right first guess. The new rules would lock up briefing documents, reports, and recommendations to cabinet for five years, or in other words, until after the next election.

The government’s position on these amendments is that they will bring the Yukon into line with other jurisdictions. Information and Privacy Commissioner Tim Koepke reports that a law restricting access to documents “relating to the making of government decision or the formulation of government policy,” would have no precedent in Canada.

What the government represents as a simple housekeeping measure appears to the Information and Privacy Commissioner as “a substantial amendment to the ATIPP Act.” It’s groundbreaking legislation, on ground that would be better left unbroken. Consider the information Silver uncovered on the Peel decision. Who would be served by a five-year lock-down on those emails? Can you convince yourself that the answer is the Yukon public?

Even if you answered yes to that question, even if for reasons of your own you still trust the Pasloski government any farther than you could throw it, bear in mind that no government lasts forever. Ask yourself, when a new ruling party comes along that you don’t trust, do you want all documents related to their cabinet decisions locked up for five years too?

NDP Opposition critic Jan Stick challenged the government on “taking information that should be accessible … (and) putting that information away, inaccessible to the public.” She went on to wonder aloud, “I don’t know what the secret is, what they don’t want us to know about.”

But that’s the whole point. The government doesn’t know either. Who can predict what degree of secrecy future events might necessitate? Better not to chance it. The best bet is to embargo everything, and then release what you want when it suits you.

A question for Yukoners: a year into Premier Darrell Pasloski’s mandate, how’s that “open and accountable government” he promised working out for you?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.