First Nations assert land rights in wake of historic case

First Nations are calling the governments of Yukon and Canada back to the negotiating table after a landmark Supreme Court decision establishing aboriginal title in parts of B.C.

First Nations are calling the governments of Yukon and Canada back to the negotiating table after a landmark Supreme Court decision establishing aboriginal title in parts of B.C.

Dave Porter, chief negotiator for the Kaska Dena Council, called the Tsilhqot’in decision “one of the most significant legal decisions rendered on aboriginal jurisprudence in this country’s history.”

In the decision the Supreme Court of Canada declared that the Tsilhqot’in First Nation has aboriginal title to its traditional territory. That has reinforced the responsibility of governments to consult and accommodate on decisions related to that land.

“Their aboriginal rights to their traditional territories have been confirmed,” wrote Ken Coates, senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, in a recent Troy Media column.

“The basis for negotiations in British Columbia and elsewhere has shifted. First Nations have more legal authority than in the past and, like anyone else in a similar situation, they will use it to their benefit.”

That’s what the Kaska Dena Council hope to do, too.

The council represents three B.C.-based First Nations. Kaska traditional territory covers large swaths of southeast Yukon and northern B.C. as well as parts of the Northwest Territories.

“If the Kaska continue to litigate, at the end of that process, there may very well be a declaration that the southeast Yukon is Kaska aboriginal title land,” said Porter.

But the council would prefer to get what it wants outside of the courts, he said.

“We’re not keen on decades more of litigation. We see this as an opportunity for the parties to make best efforts to establish a negotiating table to resolve these issues. And I think that’s the way to go.”

Un-treatied First Nations with territory in the Yukon have a unique legal argument that compels the Government of Canada to return to the negotiating table, said Porter.

A 1870 order compels the federal government to establish treaties before taking up the land for the purpose of settlement.

Much of Canada is already covered by historical and modern treaties.

B.C., where much of the land is still not covered by treaty, had not yet joined Confederation in 1870.

The Canadian government is therefore uniquely compelled to deal with the outstanding claims of the Kaska Dena Council and other groups with territory in the Yukon, said Porter.

The White River First Nation is one of those other groups that is in a parallel situation.

It has also called on the Yukon to come back to the negotiating table in the wake of the Tsilhqot’in decision.

“We look at it as a huge victory for all First Nation people, but in our current situation we see it as critical,” said Janet Vander Meer, the First Nation’s chief negotiator. “It’s a critical time for particularly the Yukon government to recognize and respect where we’re at.”

White River is one of three Yukon-based First Nations that has not signed a final agreement with governments of Canada and Yukon.

Now more than ever it’s clear that was the right decision, she said.

“The offerings from the government to sign on were so pathetic that I’m pleased that our nation at that time chose not to sign.”

With the Supreme Court decision the First Nation is in an even better position to negotiate for rights to its traditional territory, said Vander Meer.

While the First Nation is not interested in a treaty in the style of the Umbrella Final Agreement that others have signed on to, there are other agreements that would bring certainty to governments and industry, she said.

The issue that White River and other unsigned First Nations have with the UFA is that it requires First Nations to give up claims to aboriginal title across the vast majority of traditional territories in exchange for rights to a smaller parcel.

In B.C. there are examples of framework documents that set out consultation responsibilities and structures for decision-making on land issues without relinquishing claims to aboriginal title, said Vander Meer.

“What we’re saying, and what we’ve said for three solid years, is let’s have a good solid base document. It will not be a UFA treaty. But it will encompass all of the consultation requirements that they have to go through, our expectations as a First Nation, so that we can go through this stuff. We don’t want to stall everything. We want to work more on a equal footing with YG, and I think for many years now that YG has been fumbling the ball on this.”

The White River First Nation recently signed an agreement with Gorilla Minerals Corp. for Class 1 exploration at its Wels gold and nickel property in western Yukon.

The First Nation is very pleased that the company had the foresight to come to them even at the earliest stage of exploration, said Vander Meer.

It’s the first time, to her knowledge, that a First Nation has signed an agreement regarding Class 1 work, she said.

The agreement shows attention to the duty to consult established by the Tsilhqot’in case and in the 2012 Ross River appeals court decision, she said.

“Good business is respecting the communities in which you operate,” wrote Scott Sheldon, president of Gorilla Minerals, in an email to the News. “The agreement is an important starting point to our relationship. It ensures transparency and creates a foundation of trust.”

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25 after two masked men entered a residence, assaulted a man inside with a weapon and departed. (Black Press file)
Two men arrested after Dawson City home invasion

Dawson City RCMP are reporting a break and enter on Feb. 25.… Continue reading

Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn speaks to reporters at a news conference in Whitehorse on Dec. 21, 2017. New ATIPP laws are coming into effect April 1. (Chris Windeyer/Yukon News file)
New access to information laws will take effect April 1

“Our government remains committed to government openness and accountability.”

City council meeting in Whitehorse on Feb. 8. At Whitehorse city council’s March 1 meeting, members were presented with a bylaw that would repeal 10 bylaws deemed to be redundant or out of date. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Out with the old

Council considers repealing outdated bylaws

A bobcat is used to help clear snow in downtown Whitehorse on Nov. 4. According to Environment Canada, the Yukon has experienced record-breaking precipitation this year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Yukon will have “delayed spring” after heavy winter snowfall

After record levels of precipitation, cold spring will delay melt

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted online. (Black Press file)
Yukon youth being extorted online

Yukon RCMP say they’ve received three reports of youth being extorted on… Continue reading

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. The City of Whitehorse is preparing for a pandemic-era election this October with a number of measures proposed to address COVID-19 restrictions. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
City gets set for Oct. 21 municipal election

Elections procedures bylaw comes forward

A rendering of the Normandy Manor seniors housing facility. (Photo courtesy KBC Developments)
Work on seniors housing project moves forward

Funding announced for Normandy Manor

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

Most Read