Court action by First Nations is a “virtual absolute certainty” if the federal government pushes ahead with controversial changes to Yukon’s environmental assessment legislation, said Tom Cove, director of lands and resources for the Teslin Tlingit Council.
Cove spoke this morning at a hearing in Whitehorse of the parliamentary standing committee on aboriginal affairs and northern development.
Five law firms have already been hired to start the work to prepare for the potential litigation, he said.
The Town Hall Room at the Gold Rush Inn was standing room only, with about 150 people in the public audience.
Parliamentarians present said it is one of the best attended committee meetings they have ever seen.
Seven MPs travelled to Whitehorse for today’s hearing to hear input on Bill S-6, which will amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act.
Representatives from eight Yukon First Nations as well as the Council of Yukon First Nations spoke to their shared opposition to four amendments they say were included in the bill at the last minute and without proper consultation.
The controversial bits of the proposed legislation would allow a federal minister to give binding policy direction to Yukon Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Board and delegate responsibilities to the territorial minister. They would also give the Yukon government new powers to exempt projects from assessment in the event of a licence renewal or amendment, and impose new end-to-end timelines for assessments.
A theme of the First Nations’ presentations this morning hinged on the fact that Yukon’s assessment legislation was born out of decades of joint negotiations between First Nations, the Yukon and Canada.
When First Nations signed land claims agreements, they gave up title to more than 90 per cent of their territory in exchange for promises that they would have active participation in land management decisions on Crown land, the committee heard.
The environmental assessment process as it exists today was born out of that collaborative process, and so were the amendments agreed upon during a mandated five-year review.
Any further amendments must also be born out of collaboration with First Nations, and these four amendments were not, the First Nations argued.
Premier Darrell Pasloski also addressed the committee this morning, and suggested that First Nations and the Yukon government work together on implementing Bill S-6.
“Let’s be leaders in our own house and negotiate a bilateral accord on implementation that resolves those issues,” he said.
“That olive branch is a little bit late,” said Steve Smith, chief of the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations.
Yukon MP Ryan Leef asked Smith if First Nations would be happier to see Canada at that table, too.
Smith replied that the appropriate approach would be to remove the contentious amendments in Bill S-6 first, “then we can talk about a trilateral accord” to address the issues.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at firstname.lastname@example.org