The chief of the Nacho Nyak Dun is offering a last-minute olive branch over the Peel watershed lawsuit, hoping the costly case can be avoided.
Ed Champion said he’s made repeated overtures to Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, offering to drop the lawsuit if Pasloski agrees to implement the Peel planning commission’s final recommended plan.
Champion says the offer is out of concern for the damage a protracted legal battle could cause to the territory’s mining industry.
“I’m confident we will win in the process, but I’m worried it will impact our economy,” Champion said.
The Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nations, together with the Yukon Conservation Society and Yukon’s chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, are suing the government because it rejected the planning commission’s recommendation, and instead approved a land use plan for the Peel that would open up 71 per cent of the area to new mineral staking.
The case is set for court on July 7, but Champion said he would rather see the government settle out of court.
“What I keep going back to is the Fraser Institute report where we dropped from position eight to position 17 as a choice destination in the world to mine. My fear is that we’re going to drop from 17 to off the charts,” he said.
Champion said he made his latest offer at last month’s Yukon Forum meetings, but the premier dismissed them out of hand.
“They listened, and said, ‘Well, we’ll see you in court,’” Champion said.
In an emailed statement, the Yukon government’s cabinet office said it, “did not initiate the court case, but since the case was brought by two First Nations and two NGOs, our hope is that the case will provide further clarification and certainty for all involved, on the points where Yukon government and those involved in the court case hold differing views.”
After the forum meeting, Pasloski and Grand Chief Ruth Massie issued a joint press release announcing a tenuous agreement-in-principal to expand Class 1 mining notification rules in the territory.
The new rules are already in place on Ross River Dena Council land as ordered by the courts. It is unclear exactly when or how far the government plans to expand them.
But the announcement, as thin on details as it was, has been roundly criticized by the Yukon Prospectors Association and now Champion is taking swings at it as well, though for different reasons.
Last month’s meetings were ultimately fruitless because the Peel lawsuit is the elephant in the room, Champion said. There is such little trust between the government and many First Nations that nothing much is likely to be negotiated until the lawsuit is over, he said.
Mike Power, the president of the prospectors association, said the new Class 1 changes, which govern when prospectors must notify First Nations of work being on their land, were tantamount to requiring a permit just for camping.
Given how hollow the announcement of the changes was, Champion called Power’s concerns “pure conjecture” because the negotiations are still ongoing.
“I think he went out on a limb a long ways making those statements.”
Power also contested Power’s assertion that the government intends to simply roll over and do whatever the First Nations ask on Class 1. At that, Champion chuckled.
“That’s certainly not the case, as evidenced by all the court cases out there. The government is, in our opinion, doing the opposite,” he said.
When it comes to the Peel lawsuit, Champion said he isn’t interested in negotiating any more. It’s the final recommended plan or bust. But he’s worried not just about the Peel plan itself.
The Gwitchin Tribal Council has agreed to join the suit as an intervener before the court, Champion said. They had originally planned to file their own lawsuit asking for more time to negotiate with the government over the Peel, but Champion said they were convinced otherwise.
“We gave them the option. We said either join us, or become an intervener, or delay your claim. They’ve now come back and said, ‘We will intervene on your behalf.’”
On Monday, the government released its legal arguments in the Peel case. The crux of their stance is that chapter 11 of the Umbrella Final Agreement lays out a voluntary land-use planning process that leaves the ultimate decision over non-settlement lands with the Yukon government through the power to “approve, reject or modify” the final recommended plan.
That interpretation, which the First Nations dispute, is at the heart of the lawsuit, Champion said.
“If in essence they throw out the final recommended plan, they are throwing out a key component of our final agreements. That affects every First Nation in the Yukon.
Champion again went back to the Fraser Institute report. He’s not against development, he says, he just wants to see it done according to the rules that everyone agreed to in the final agreements.
In fact, “I’d like to see the Yukon become the number one mining destination in the world. Why not? Again, if you couch it with high environmental standards, why not?”
Neither the premier nor any cabinet ministers responded to calls for comment by press time.
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