Gwich’in Tribal Council vice-president Norman Snowshoe was in no mood for government bafflegab when he turned up at the Yukon’s open house on the Peel land-use plan Tuesday.
After politely sharing a lunch of caribou stew and cupcakes with Yukon officials and community residents in the school gym, Snowshoe and other local leaders simply rearranged the seating, called the meeting to order and proceeded to say what they’d come to say.
The Gwich’in of the Northwest Territories support the final recommended Peel land-use plan.
They’re not prepared to settle for anything less.
“We recommend to the Yukon government that they finalize the commission’s plan as agreed to in the framework, as agreed to in the planning process, and as agreed to in all the meetings we’ve had over the years to develop this,” said Snowshoe.
As for the government’s recent unilateral “rewrite” of that plan, he made it clear the four Gwich’in First Nations his council represents, including the Gwichya Gwich’in of Tsiigehtchic, most definitely do not support that.
“What the Yukon government is doing is insulting to the partners that have worked on this,” he said.
Those partners include the Yukon’s Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Vuntut Gwitchin.
They don’t like what the government’s doing either and it looks like the dispute may be headed to court.
The Gwich’in would rather not “deal with everything through the courts,” Snowshoe said. That’s why they negotiated land claim agreements that deal specifically with land management.
“I encourage the Yukon government to pay closer attention to the land claim agreements and what they say and how you’re supposed to deal with First Nations in the Yukon and with us in the N.W.T.”
Snowshoe, who is originally from Fort McPherson but now works out of the council’s Inuvik headquarters, knows the Peel well.
As a kid he spent part of the year trapping, fishing and travelling the region with his family.
In 2002, he got to see another side of things – he helped clean up the mess left behind by oil giant Shell when it abandoned its site at Caribou River, a tributary of the lower Peel.
Through his work with the tribal council, Snowshoe has been involved with the Peel plan since the start.
But even that was a fight, he said.
“When we were developing that commission, it should be noted that there was great reluctance from the Yukon government to actually set up a commission to do a land-use plan. It was only after a lot of lobbying by the First Nation groups of that area to get this planning process started.”
It’s important to remember the six-member commission had people appointed by both the Yukon and First Nation governments, he said.
There was also a senior liaison committee established to help with “any differences that may arise during the planning process,” said Snowshoe.
The Gwich’in believed in the process and participated in “good faith. “
They thought the plan produced in the end would have agreement by all. They didn’t expect the Yukon government to turn around and rewrite it – something the First Nations haven’t done, he added.
“If we agree to something – any format, any framework – we follow it,” he said. “In the years since we’ve had our land claims agreement, never once did the Government of Canada or the territorial governments take us to court for not implementing our portion of the claim.”
The same cannot be said for the Yukon.
“How many times has the Yukon government been taken to court over land management processes? Is that the way you’re going to deal with your relationship with First Nations – go through the courts to determine if you’re right or wrong? Is this (the Peel) another process that you’re going to have to determine through the courts?”
Snowshoe said this was his council’s “initial message.” It’ll have more to say when it meets directly with the Yukon government in a month or so.
In the meantime, he told officials to make sure his comments were documented, recorded and posted on the Peel consultation website.
It’s not right that the government isn’t sharing the public’s input as it receives it, he said.
“They’re public documents. You guys are a public government. This is a public process,” he said. “The only time anything was done in isolation was when you guys modified the plan.”