In a recent “Second Thoughts” column, Graham Lang makes his case that the Yukon government’s version of a “Peel plan” is not undemocratic.
He frames the widespread public criticism of the Yukon government’s document as an attack on the legitimacy of representative democracy in general and on the Yukon Party government in particular. He is knocking down a straw man, as few people seriously challenge our basic governing principles.
No, the peoples’ critique is of the process taken by the Yukon government to develop its “plan” and on its contents. It was written in secrecy, was not based on public consultation, drew skewed conclusions from the available evidence, and it rejected what Yukoners were on record as wanting. If this is democratic, it is only in the strictly limited sense that it was authorized by elected politicians. The problem is that irreversible damage can be done to the land before politicians are ever held to account.
The Peel Watershed Planning Commission, mandated by the Umbrella Final Agreement, was an advisory body appointed by elected governments, established precisely because it was arms-length from politicians. It’s seven-year process generated high-quality information about the planning region, relied on extensive and open consultation, employed sound science and planning methods, and its conclusions were consistent with the research and with values and interests of the Yukon people. The commission’s plan clearly is democratic.
But there is a deeper question here: that of legitimacy. Are there not moral limits on the right of politicians to make irrevocable decisions over irreplaceable public assets? For example, should the elected government of Egypt feel free to demolish the Sphinx or the Pyramids at Giza? Is there not an ethical obligation to act as stewards of our natural and cultural heritage for people yet to come? How can politicians be accountable to future generations?
The Peel Watershed Planning Commission learned that the people of the Yukon and the First Nations value the Peel watershed as wilderness: lightly used, but undeveloped. A minority want it developed for mining and other industrial purposes. The commission’s research established that at present, these competing visions cannot be reconciled. Therefore it took a cautious, humble approach: preserve the Peel watershed’s wilderness character for the time being until society could agree better. Perhaps in the future we will craft better management approaches – maybe on the basis of new technologies. Perhaps our values will change: wilderness might become even more valuable or possibly less valuable.
A “go-slow” approach has no real downside – our economic health does not depend on developing the Peel watershed at this time. And the assertion that mining claim holders would have to be compensated is a bugbear.
The point is that wilderness is a resource that can shrink but cannot grow. Across Canada, the remnants are more valuable than ever. Our local politicians are promoting a development plan for the Peel that would eliminate some of the best wilderness remaining. Development and road-building is a one-way gate for wilderness, but in conserving the Peel’s wilderness we also conserve options. Since as a society we disagree on development, in fairness, let’s agree to keep our options open.
All ethics come from recognizing membership in a community. The community affected by the Peel watershed plan is wider than the mining community. It is wider than the business community. Wider than the environmental community. Wider than the First Nations, wider than the voting community, wider than the people of the Yukon or of Canada; wider even than the unborn generations who should be considered.
Our ethical community includes the land and its animals, plants, and waters. Considering all this, the commission’s plan is democratic. What about the Yukon government’s “plan”?
David Loeks is former
chair of the Peel Watershed