First Nations urge public input on environmental assessment changes

Yukon First Nations are doubling down in opposition to planned changes to the territory's environmental assessment legislation. Bill S-6 has been tabled in Parliament, after recently clearing the Senate.

Yukon First Nations are doubling down in opposition to planned changes to the territory’s environmental assessment legislation.

Bill S-6 has been tabled in Parliament, after recently clearing the Senate. It will amend the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act.

Yukon’s assessment process was born from treaties signed with 11 First Nations. It is designed to meet the objectives set out in those treaties, including treating First Nations as partners and respecting the land.

The legislation is “distinct” and meant to be that way, said Roger Brown, manager of environment and natural resources for the Champagne and Aishihik First Nations, at a news conference Thursday.

The federal government says it is bringing Yukon’s rules in line with other jurisdictions, but First Nations say the changes are regressive, leave First Nations out of the process and run afoul of the treaties.

Daryn Leas, a Vancouver lawyer representing the Council of Yukon First Nations, said that First Nations are considering legal action “as a last resort.”

But there would be no legal basis to file a lawsuit until changes have been proclaimed into law, so no action is to be expected before that point, he said.

For now, the priority is on starting a conversation with Yukoners and lobbying parliamentarians, said Brown.

The coalition of First Nations opposing the bill include every Yukon First Nation with a final agreement with the exception of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation.

Vuntut Gwitchin doesn’t have a firm position at the moment because it is in the midst of elections, said Leas.

The First Nations will host a public forum on the changes from Nov. 13 from 7-9 p.m. at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre.

They are taking this “unusual step” to consult with Yukoners independently of territorial and federal governments because government-to-government talks have broken down, and because Yukoners deserve to have a say, said Brown.

The federal government brought proposed amendments to First Nations in a very secretive way, said Brown.

They were not given copies of the draft legislation in advance, were not allowed to keep the documents, and were sworn to secrecy, he said.

Those who participated by teleconference were not allowed to review the documents at all.

Further, the officials at the meeting had no mandate to negotiate changes, said Brown. They simply presented information and listened to what the First Nations had to say.

The views of the First Nations were not accommodated, and in fact amendments in some cases “turned for the worse,” said Brown.

For example, in the version First Nations saw, overall assessment timelines would exclude the adequacy review phase. In the version tabled, that part of the assessment process is included, without the compensation of increased timelines.

There’s an “order of magnitude difference” between the consideration that First Nations were given compared to industry lobbyists when the bill was under consideration by Senate committee, said Brown.

Even as parties to the treaty that built the assessment process, First Nations were given one hour to share among them to make their case to the committee, he said.

Representatives from Yukon Energy, the mining industry and the petroleum industry were each given an hour to make their case to the committee.

The assessment board had a hearing scheduled with the committee, but it was cancelled with less than a week’s notice.

The First Nations oppose changes that would give the federal minister authority to give the assessment board binding policy direction, to determine what projects need assessments in the event of a licence renewal, and to delegate any or all of its powers to the territorial minister.

All of these changes strip First Nations of their status as equal partners in the legislation, said Brown.

They also hurt the ability of assessors to properly do their jobs, he said.

The biggest irony is that “these amendments are not necessary,” said Leas.

Unlike some other jurisdictions, Yukon’s assessment board has no regulatory power. It can only make recommendations.

Because the government with jurisdiction over the land has the final say, there’s no need for political interference at any earlier stage in the process, he said.

The uncertainty that would result from these changes, in terms of increased lawsuits or threats of lawsuits, would “send a shiver down the spine” of investors, said Leas.

Contact Jacqueline Ronson at

jronson@yukon-news.com

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