Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett speaks to Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston at a media conference following an Intergovernmental Forum in Whitehorse on Dec. 15. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

First Nations, Yukon and Canadian governments sign document to ‘reset’ YESAA relationship

Officials announced the signing of a memorandum of understanding in Whitehorse Dec. 15

On the tail of Bill C-17 becoming law, self-governing Yukon First Nations and the territorial and federal governments have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on the Yukon Environment and Socio-economic Assessment Act, marking a fresh start on how all parties will handle future YESAA projects.

Council of Yukon First Nations Grand Chief Peter Johnston, Champagne and Aishihik First Nations Chief Steve Smith, Yukon Premier Sandy Silver and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett made the announcement Dec. 15 following the Intergovernmental Forum in Whitehorse.

“Today was a very good day,” Johnston said during a press conference, noting that it follows several other wins for Yukon First Nations this year, including the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling on the Peel watershed planning case and a moratorium on a federal policy that saw Ottawa clawing back money from self-governing First Nations with their own revenue sources.

In a press release, Bennett said by signing the MOU and passing Bill C-17, which undid several controversial amendments the Harper government made to YESAA without properly consulting Yukon First Nations, the government is “re-establishing trust with Yukon First Nations and removing a key impediment to increased investment, responsible development, and jobs in the Yukon.”

At the press conference, Bennett added that it was “inspiring” to be in the Yukon because “it is a place where there is certainty of opportunity because now the territorial government and the Grand Chief and the self-governing First Nations as well as the other First Nations are working together on a shared priority for their region.”

Few details were released about the MOU, other than that it essentially serves as a “reset” for all governments on how to approach YESAA changes and will include the creation of a new oversight group that will have representatives from Yukon First Nations as well as the territorial and federal governments.

Asked about what role industry will play in the process, Silver said it’ll have to wait a bit longer before being able to weigh in.

“We’ve gone through an awful long process here, from S-6 to C-17 and we’re all, every level of government, is ready to go to make sure that every year moving forward that YESAA is as functional for the environment and the socio-economic process as possible,” he said. “If industry is chomping at the bit to get to these conversations, so are we, but we’re not going to do it until all three governments are in line as to what that process means.”

“We’ve been asking the First Nations governments to be very patient over the last several years, so we’re going to be reaching out to the industries as soon as we all get succinct in our message.”

Representatives for the Yukon mining industry had previously expressed concern about passing Bill C-17 without having replacement language in place for four amendments introduced under Bill S-6, which they say have been beneficial to mining and exploration in the territory. Those provisions included a streamlined approval process for minor adjustments made to ongoing mining and exploration projects.

At the press conference, Smith said that Yukon First Nations aren’t against development, and the passage of Bill C-17 doesn’t mean that the four provisions in question are never going to be on the table again.

“What we want is to actually have the discussion,” he said.

“We gave up a big chunk of our land, land that we owned, with the assurance that the government would always discuss and provide avenues. YESAA was one of those avenues for us to have input on the development of our traditional territories.”

CAFN was “encouraged” by the discussions at the Forum, he added.

“Champagne-Aishihik comes from a standpoint of, we want to sit down and talk. We’ve always had the idea that sitting down and through dialogue, we’ll come to a better arrangement,” Smith said.

“The discussion that went on today was really us talking to each other. We heard words today of collaboration, working together, joint action plan, reset MOU, so those are key words in terms of working together.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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