A Black Sheep Aviation floatplane lands at Bonnet Plume Lake in the Peel Watershed area. (Mike Thomas/Yukon News file)

Chiefs and former Peel planning chair express happiness, frustration with case

Peel case wouldn’t have had to go to court at all if YG had respected final agreements, say chiefs

Although happy with the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on the Peel watershed case, the chiefs of two Yukon First Nations as well as the former chair of the planning commission are expressing frustration that the case had to go to court at all.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled Dec. 1 that the former Yukon government overstepped when it released a plan for the Peel watershed that was radically different from the recommended plan produced by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. The federal court also ruled that the Yukon Court of Appeal erred in setting back the Peel planning process to a stage that would have essentially given the Yukon government a do-over, instead ordering all parties to return to the stage where the Yukon can approve, reject or modify the final plan after consultation.

In separate phone interviews Dec. 5, Chief Roberta Joseph of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and Chief Simon Mervyn of the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun described the decision as a “victory” that reinforces the importance the Umbrella Final Agreement and modern treaties.

However, while Joseph said she was “pleased” with the decision, “on the other hand, if the prior government had taken our agreement seriously, then we wouldn’t have been in this situation at all.”

“In my view, this matter is not water under the bridge. It turned into a really serious issue and that serious issue revolved on the breach of our agreement,” she said. “Our Final Agreements have to be taken seriously in terms of what the process is…. Reconciliation has to be considered as well, moving forward into the future.”

Dave Loeks, the former chair of the planning commission, agreed.

“I’m frustrated (because) the previous government should have known better and they evidently didn’t take the Umbrella Final Agreement and the planning chapter terribly seriously and they should have, so if they had been not acting illegally, then we wouldn’t have gone through all this,” Loeks said.

“On the other hand, the court ruling establishes this really clearly and I guess that’s one merit of legal process, that they certainly clarify things that people otherwise argue about.”

The Yukon Party declined to comment for this story, referring the News to a statement it issued shortly after the Supreme Court of Canada released its decision.

In the statement, the Yukon Party acknowledged that “mistakes were made” and said that it respects the Umbrella Final Agreement and Yukon First Nations. It also expressed concerns about the future of existing mineral claims in the Peel.

Loeks said he didn’t think the statement was adequate.

“I think when they say, ‘mistakes were made,’ what those mistakes were was a government acting illegally. They had to be taken to court, through court and all the way to the Supreme Court to confirm the magnitude of that. Yes, I guess you could call that a mistake — I’d call that a bit more,” he said.

“Also, I had to raise my eyebrows at the comment about, ‘we’ll accept the Supreme Court’s decision.’ Well of course you’re going to accept. The Supreme Court spoke — that’s the only option you have. You may not agree with it but you’re certainly going to accept it.”

Joseph said she thought the Yukon Party needs to “think deeply about working together with everybody — working together with the other parties, working together with First Nations and working together with organization.”

“For each court case — the Yukon Supreme Court, the Court of Appeal, as well as the Supreme Court of Canada — all of the money that was spent on that probably would have been put towards much better use…. There has to be more respect for our Final Agreements to be able to avoid this kind of circumstance that would take money out of taxpayer dollars, to put towards legal matters that could have been avoided,” she said.

In an email, Yukon justice department spokesperson Dan Cable confirmed that in total, the Yukon government has spent $449,000 on Outside lawyers for the Peel case.

Both Joseph and Mervyn said there’s since been a shift in the political atmosphere since the Peel lawsuit was first launched, and that they anticipate the upcoming consultations with the current Yukon government to be respectful and productive.

“I think that the climate of today with the government is much more reconcilable in terms of wanting to work together in terms of our respective First Nations,” Joseph said, adding that due to the holiday season, consultations likely won’t start until 2018.

“There’s more collaboration, more effort towards collaboration, there seems to be more effort towards respecting our agreements and wanting to implement our agreements and seeing them as a benefit to the Yukon in addition to putting in the effort as well to be meeting with Yukon First Nations all together.”

Mervyn agreed.

“Oh my goodness, it’s a major difference — the attitude, there’s no tense atmosphere when you sit down with Premier Silver and his crew. But nonetheless, there are issues in regards to cleaning up the Yukon Party mess.… We all understand that it’s bureaucratic levels that have to be waded through to make a major political decision,” he said.

“Politics is a tricky game, but we’re learning,” Mervyn added. “We’re not going nowhere, and the environment is not for sale…. Domestic necessities shall not supercede environmental destruction.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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