Campground battle heats up as decision looms

Almost two months after assessors recommended that a new campground be built on Atlin Lake, the Yukon government has not made a decision on the project.

Almost two months after assessors recommended that a new campground be built on Atlin Lake, the Yukon government has not made a decision on the project.

The Atlin-based Taku River Tlingit First Nation remains fiercely opposed to the project, and says the Yukon is not within its legal rights to push ahead.

If the campground were built, “it would be the most harmful thing that ever happened to the Taku River Tlingits,” said John Ward, spokesperson for the First Nation.

It’s worse than if the area were turned into a mine, because mines are temporary and campgrounds are forever, he said.

Environment Minister Currie Dixon and other officials met with representatives from the First Nation for several hours on January 2, but the parties are no closer to an agreement.

The First Nation would like to initiate a land claims negotiation before it considers the possibility of a campground, and the Yukon government says it is unwilling to delay its plans.

If the Yukon government forges ahead, which by all indications it intends to do, it will be under threat of legal action from the First Nation.

“We want to do everything we can to protect our rights and our title to that area,” said Ward.

Dixon declined an interview request for this article, saying that discussions are between the two governments.

The proposed campground is located on the east shore of Atlin Lake, just north of the border with British Columbia.

It is within the traditional territory of the Taku River Tlingit, according to a claim that was approved by the federal government in 1984 with support of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

As a result, the First Nation has asserted rights and title to the area, and the Yukon government is legally required to consult when decisions are made about that land.

But the First Nation first heard about the planned campground when it was publicized in the media in March of last year.

Official consultation with the First Nation did not begin until May 8, according to the government’s record.

“We feel that the consultation that has been conducted by the Yukon government has been adequate in the circumstances,” said Dermot Flynn, with Yukon’s aboriginal relations branch in an interview Thursday.

The Taku River Tlingit has asked the Yukon government to halt work on the campground until a treaty negotiation is underway. It has offered to fast-track campground talks within that negotiation.

But the government would like to see the First Nation deal with its claims to B.C. territory before it engages with the Yukon.

“That’s been the approach that Canada and Yukon have taken in the past,” said Flynn. “Their primary claim should be dealt with first, and then the transboundary claim could be dealt with after that.”

The First Nation has reached out to the Canadian government to help pressure the Yukon into a treaty negotiation. A federal official has suggested a meeting between the three parties.

The Taku River Tlingit have asked Yukon to delay a decision on the campground until those discussions take place.

It’s unclear if the Yukon government is willing to wait that long.

A spokesperson with Environment said Friday morning that a decision could be coming within the next few days.

The First Nation wants to see interim protection on Yukon portions of its traditional territory so that land claims can begin.

“Yukon government has been recording mineral claims, granting land, creating parks, settling land claims and is now on the path to creating a campground in the TRTFN’s unsurrendered traditional territory without consulting or accommodating the TRTFN,” said Nicole Gordon, manager of lands and resources with the First Nation.

Other alternative campground locations exist that would be more appropriate, including the proposed campground at the Conrad historic site near Carcross, she said.

The Carcross/Tagish First Nation and the Yukon government have recently signed an agreement to explore the development of that site into a campground.

The Taku River Tlingit believes that the area of the proposed Atlin campground is one of the few valuable parcels of land left in its traditional territory, and it should be preserved as a potential land selection through the treaty process.

“That’s a key area, I believe, that could support the Taku River Tlingits so that we can get away from social assistance, handouts and so on,” said Ward.

The First Nation could use that land not only for traditional harvesting activities but also for commercial development, he said.

The Yukon government is not open to providing interim protection for Yukon portions of the First Nation’s traditional territory, said Flynn.

With other land claims negotiations, protections for selected land parcels has only occurred at a very late stage of the treaty process, he said.

“Just a wholesale withdrawal of land from other use, that has never been agreed to.”

The government has offered to continue to consult with the First Nation on the campground if it moves forward, and to negotiate a process for future consultations, said Flynn.

The Taku River Tlingit believes it has a strong legal case against the Yukon government and against the development of a campground on that spot, according to recent letters from the First Nation to the Yukon.

Indeed, the Yukon government has a poor track record in recent years when it comes to court battles with First Nations on questions of land and consultation.

In the most recent example, the Yukon Court of Appeal mandated that the Yukon must consult the Ross River Dena Council on mineral staking and low-level exploration activities on its traditional territory.

But the Taku River Tlingit would like to avoid a legal battle, if possible.

“Nobody wins going to court, it seems,” said Ward.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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