A plan for the land

Land-use planning was a promise included in First Nations' final agreements. And it was guaranteed for a reason - so they would get done. No one thought they would take as long as they have.

Land-use planning was a promise included in First Nations’ final agreements. And it was guaranteed for a reason – so they would get done.

No one thought they would take as long as they have, said both Liz Hanson, leader of the NDP, and Arthur Mitchell, Liberal leader.

Hanson worked for the federal government during the negotiation of the first four land claim and self-government agreements.

“Nobody anticipated this was going to be a lifelong process,” she said. “We’ve had 16 years since the first four agreements were signed and we have had one land-use plan completed, one in dispute and one started. At this rate, your grandchildren will be at this.”

If elected, Hanson’s NDP promises to speed up the process.

RELATED:Read all of our election coverage.

Not only would the NDP commit to a timeline, but it would find ways to plan in the areas that do not have settled land claims – a problem no one involved has figured out, or even considered yet.

Mitchell agrees the process is taking too long, but speeding it up is irrational and irresponsible. You have to consider consultation obligations and due process, he said.

“You can put as many millions of dollars as you want, but it doesn’t mean you can get a plan developed in six weeks,” he said. “There’s a certain basic timeline to get through this process that’s going to be required. It’s unfortunate that we didn’t get further through it in an era where there was less-high mineral prices, and, therefore, there was less interest in moving forward rapidly with development.”

The only land-use plan that has been completed is in the northernmost, least occupied, and barely explored region of the territory.

The Peel plan, if ever finalized, will be the second of eight regions designated for land-use planning.

Dawson is next. Its land-use planning commission has already been formed.

“By not completing land-use planning, we are de facto making a decision about what’s the best use for the land in this territory,” said Hanson, mentioning northern Alberta’s current predicament of trying to plan after the tarsands have already made an irreversible mark on the environment.

“So, we think all parties want to make sure that this doesn’t drag on for another 20 years.”

But it already has been almost two decades, and those parties involved are realizing something should be done in the meantime.

Interim protection for key areas is needed before planning is done, chiefs told the Council of Yukon First Nations’ general assembly in July.

Hanson agrees.

Outrageous, said Mitchell, noting the Klondike region’s planning commission has already been struck, which – for the Peel – was when people wanted a staking moratorium put in place.

But the Dawson area is a in the midst of a gold rush, said Mitchell.

“We can’t simply stop everything,” he said. “It’s a difficult balancing act, for sure, but to take the NDP’s position – if that had been adopted in 1993, there wouldn’t be a Minto mine in Carmacks employing Yukoners because there hasn’t been a plan. And there wouldn’t be a mine at Wolverine, because there hasn’t been a plan.

“There’d be no mining industry in Yukon because we’d be 18 years into it with no mining allowed. That’s just not realistic. That’s why the First Nations had lands put aside – lands they deemed critical for their land claims and final agreements.

“In those areas, there was the ability to say, ‘No, the mining will not go there, necessarily.’ If we’re going to take the entire Yukon and take it off limits until this process is completed, then we’re going to have a Yukon that has no economic development.”

But environmental conservation is not solely a First Nations’ responsibility.

Land claims were intended to help provide a base to fledgling governments. For example, many Yukon First Nations used the negotiations to put some land aside for economic development to support their communities and citizens, as well as wilderness land and cultural sites.

And they were only able to claim so much.

Again, that is why they negotiated the entrenchment of land-use planning into the agreements.

Since the agreements, and the skyrocketing mineral prices, it has become apparent land-use planning is needed for another reason: to establish rules in residential and municipal areas.

“If it was my house, I’d be pretty miserable too,” said Mitchell of neighbors of the infamous Slinky Mine on Dawson City’s Dome Road. “But the problem there is that the mining claims pre-existed that (area) being inside municipal boundaries.”

The Quartz Mining Act and the Yukon Municipal Act should be strengthened and amended to allow municipalities to decide what happens to the land around and under residents’ homes from now on, said Mitchell.

Placer claims cannot be staked within municipalities, he added.

But some communities may want hardrock mining within municipal boundaries, like Whitehorse did for many years with Whitehorse Copper, Mitchell said.

Homes and municipalities should be protected from any free-entry staking, said Hanson.

“To have that threat hanging over people who legitimately invest in their homes is not a secure feeling,” she said. “Those things are not conducive to peaceful use and enjoyment of your property.”

But before any more planning can go ahead, the whole process immediately needs more cash, said First Nation chiefs in July.

At that time, Premier Darrell Pasloski wouldn’t say where he stood on such things.

Even Hanson said she wasn’t sure about the financing, but agreed that they will need to find more and suggested tapping Ottawa.

So did Mitchell.

“It’s financed by Canada,” he said about land-use planning. “It’s clear that the process is taking so much longer than anticipated and that it’s not going to be sufficiently funded to get through all areas, so we need to work with Canada to increase the funding, so the process can speed up as much as possible.”

Hanson and Mitchell also agree on one more thing: the recommended land-use plan for the Peel Watershed region.

Both will sign off on it and finalize the second land-use plan for the territory.

Pasloski and the Yukon Party haven’t said how they feel about that plan.

And their excuses – citing “Chapter 11” and the timeline in the memorandum of understanding with four First Nations with a stake in the Peel – were officially challenged by aboriginal chiefs this week.

“Nothing in our agreements, or joint letter of understanding, suggests it is inappropriate for governments to articulate their views on the plan prior to undertaking the final round of public and intergovernmental consultation,” the four aboriginal leaders wrote in an open letter Tuesday.

“In fact, as part of the planning process, all affected governments are expected to provide their positions on important planning issues – something the Yukon government has failed to do.”

The Yukon Party would not grant an interview for this story.

Instead, campaign manager Jonas Smith wrote an email.

“The Yukon Party remains committed to the land-use planning process,” he wrote, noting the Yukon Party government completed the North Yukon land use plan.

“The notion that the process could be fast tracked is ludicrous at best, and horrifically irresponsible at worst.

“The Peel is the second of eight total land-use plans on the table, and should be complete by year’s end or early in the new year, and the Klondike will be the third.”

The point of land-use planning is not only to conserve wilderness. The point is to, literally, make a plan for the land.

And to think you can only choose mining or conservation is wrong, said Chief Simon Mervyn of the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation.

“We can have the best of all worlds,” he said. “We defend and protect special places. At the same time, we work with industry, through co-operative engagement process, to develop resources and generate employment in places where we support development.”

“And anyone who thinks protecting the Peel River Watershed will affect mining investment in Yukon hasn’t been to Na-Cho Nyak Dun territory in recent years.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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