Just hours after Yukon government workers had packed up their Peel maps and heaved a huge sigh of relief that they’d survived seven days of public grilling, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake rattled the mountains in the heart of the watershed.
The second shaker to strike the region since consultations began in late October, it seemed like a fitting end to the government’s frenetic first phase of gathering public feedback on a final land use plan.
It was an exclamation mark of sorts – punctuating the mix of anger, frustration and, in some cases, sheer bewilderment, expressed by people who attended the open houses in Dawson, Mayo and Whitehorse during the past week and a half.
In Dawson the open house began much like all the rest. Planning maps lined the walls. Half a dozen bureaucrats were on hand, eager to tell people about the region’s “values” and the government’s new “concepts.”
But then things took a bit of a twist. Local residents who had filed into the meeting room at the Downtown Hotel earlier were no longer filing out as usual. Instead they milled around until the room was full and then forced the government to turn its open house into a public meeting, at least for an hour or so.
Of the handful of Tr’ondek Hwech’in elders in the crowd, only Peggy Kormendy was lucky enough to score a chair.
The others had to stand while more than a dozen people took turns sharing their views on the Peel, the plan and the process.
When Kormendy had a chance to speak, she told how her parents, John and Alice Semple, used to walk from Dawson to their home in the Blackstone River area. How they had trails and made camps. And how they hunted to help Dawson’s non-native population.
In a firm but quiet voice, she also told the government, in no uncertain terms, that it was critical to protect Mother Earth, including the Peel.
“I see you paint your maps green,” she said, referring to the “concepts” taped to the wall between two Halin de Repentigny paintings.
“Sure it’s nice – it looks nice as green – but I think you should paint it red instead,” she said, suggesting that would be more in keeping with the government’s vision for the Peel.
Elder Doris Roberts shared Kormendy’s sense of betrayal. She, too, believed the government when it promised to work with First Nations.
“Why do we have to fight, fight, fight?” she asked.
“You want your oil. You want your gold. But can you eat gold?”
Dawson resident Chris Clarke said she’s disgusted by the whole ordeal.
“I find that what’s happening is despicable, it’s disrespectful,” she said. “I’ve never actually been so angry in my life at what’s going on here.”
But people are not going to give up on the Peel without a good fight, she warned.
“I think the message that you’re getting is: ‘Go back to where it was good, where people didn’t hate you, because what you’re doing is creating enemies and you’re dividing society.’”
Former chief Darren Taylor, just speaking for himself, said the issue now is the process itself.
“The problem is we’re not working together and we’re not respecting these agreements,” he said.
The government is “making a mockery” of the concept of consultation, Tr’ondek Hwech’in official Tim Gerberding told those gathered.
Three years ago, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, along with the Nacho Nyak Dun, Gwich’in Tribal Council and Vuntut Gwitchin, signed a deal with the Yukon to work jointly on Peel consultations, he said.
And that’s just what they did in 2010. Public meetings, not open houses, were used to gather opinions.
“There were chairs set out for elders and anyone else who needed one,” said Gerberding.
“There were microphones to speak in. There were planners who gave a summary of the plan. A commission member was there. It really was an open process, a comfortable process, that promoted dialogue.”
Not so this time.
“The government has simply decided: ‘Screw it, we’re going to go our own way and we’re going to bulldoze this process through.’ And that’s what they’re trying to do.”
Hence no chairs, for the elders or anyone else, he said.
“The anticipation was that people would come in, walk a quick circle for half an hour, maybe make a comment and leave. So you don’t need chairs when you’re doing that,” he said.
“But that sort of a process is designed to enable the government to get its message to you. It is not designed to allow you to get your message to the government.”
As far as the First Nations are concerned, what the government is doing is illegal, he said. It’s way too late in the game for it to introduce major changes to the final recommended plan.
Jim Bell, who heads the government’s Peel team, said later in an interview he wasn’t surprised by the strong remarks made during the community meetings.
But when asked what he’ll tell the premier about how this first round went, he said he’d have to consult with the others before answering that.