A potentially precedent-setting case about how big game hunting licences and tags are handed out in the Ross River area wrapped up Wednesday.
The Ross River Dena Council and the Yukon government were in Yukon Supreme Court for two days over the issue.
Justice Ron Veale has reserved his decision with no word on when he might come back with an answer.
The First Nation is asking for a court declaration that the government has a duty to consult it before issuing hunting tags and licences for big game in the First Nation’s traditional territory.
On the other side, the government insists the First Nation’s concerns are not supported by any evidence.
The government has brought in lawyer Thomas Issac, an aboriginal law expert from Calgary, to argue its case.
Issac said the government has a good working relationship with Ross River Dena Council, particularly on wildlife matters.
“The instructions that I received from the government of the Yukon were very clear, that we wanted to put forward a fair, balanced defence,” Issac said outside the court.
“But it’s very difficult when there’s no evidence that you’ve done something wrong.”
The First Nation has already won a similar case dealing with the same block of land – about 63,000 square kilometres in the north end of the Kaska traditional territory, covering the communities of Ross River and Faro.
In that case two years ago, the court of appeal ruled the Yukon government needs to consult with unsigned First Nation governments, like Ross River, before a mineral claim is staked on its traditional lands.
The government tried to take the case to the Supreme Court of Canada but was denied.
New staking has been banned in the area ever since while the government consults and continues to work on updating the regulations.
While the First Nation’s lawyer, Stephen Walsh, says this latest case is “deja vu all over again,” Issac insists what Ross River wants now is different from the staking case.
In that case the First Nation had a problem with specific regulations. He called this latest request a wide-ranging declaration “that you couldn’t put four corners around.”
“In this case, Ross River has asked for a duty to consult prior to the issuance of licences and tags,” he said.
“So then it begs the question, well, what are we consulting on? Are we consulting on licences and tags? Are we talking about the decision around quotas? Are we talking about closed hunting season? Are we talking about setting conditions on permits?”
Walsh, meanwhile, has maintained it’s clear the government must consult prior to issuing hunting licences and big game tags for hunting inside Ross River’s traditional territory.
The First Nation is not seeking to be consulted on each individual licence. Instead, they want something more overarching at the beginning of the hunting season.
It is not challenging the way things have been done in the past, but wants the declaration from the court on any future decisions.
Walsh contends the Crown has a duty to consult when it has knowledge of potential rights and title of a First Nation and is considering an action that might impact those rights.
In this case, sport hunters could compete with the right of First Nations subsistence hunting.
Gord Zealand spoke on behalf of the Yukon Fish and Game Association, which was given intervenor status in the hearing.
Zealand told the judge issues like this could be taken to the Yukon Wildlife Management Board, which is made up of representatives from Yukon First Nations and from the Yukon government.
Walsh pointed out that the First Nation appointments are made by the Council of Yukon First Nations, and Ross River is not a part of that organization.
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