Land use planning: keep it or leave it?

If resource exploitation is a drug, then land-use planning is the intervention.

If resource exploitation is a drug, then land-use planning is the intervention.

The use of long-term zoning for large geographical areas, employed in the Yukon since land claim agreements came into effect, forces society to consider serious questions about its limits.

Should we keep laying roads and bridges over rivers? Should we add another mine to this watershed? How many more moose are there in the woods? And can these migratory birds settle in this area despite high human traffic?

Land-use planning is all about acknowledging limits. It doesn’t mean you have to stop development, it just means you need to do it a little smarter.

But as smart as land-use planning sounds, the policy tool is going through a bit of a crisis across Canada’s North. Despite being popular in the policy circles of yesteryear, problems are cropping up.

In the Yukon, the Peel Watershed land-use plan caused political turmoil and it still hasn’t been finished.

In Nunavut, there are complaints that indigenous people aren’t involved enough in development despite land-use plans.

And in Northern Ontario, First Nations have rejected the province’s attempt to install land-use plans because Queens Park is too squeamish to address treaty issues.

Pardon the pun, but things aren’t going exactly as planned.

So the Conference Board of Canada has organized an academic death match between three policy experts that will determine, once and for all, whether land-use planning is worth it.

Thomas Berger, Steven Kennett and Hayden King have several months to hash out some research and bring their conclusions to a public lecture at the Beringia Centre on May 12. They’ve already chosen a generalized opinion – under the banners of Keep It Up, Fix It Up and Give It Up – and they hope to sharpen their viewpoints for the policy showdown.

The talk is part of the Conference Board of Canada’s effort at engaging on northern issues. It recently opened a Centre for the North in Yellowknife and this research is being sponsored by CIBC’s Scholar-In-Residence program.

King, a indigenous studies lecturer at McMaster University, feels that for all the fanfare, indigenous people have not achieved more political or economic inclusion through land-use planning.

“It’s really the intersection of conservationists and industry,” he said. “They seem to be the ones really driving land-use planning.”

King – who worked for the Ontario government when it began pushing for land-use plans in its North – has a philosophical problem with land-use planning, and conservationists in particular.

“Neither the way that our industry operates, nor the way our conservation policies operate, neither of those concepts mesh with indigenous perceptions of economy or ecological philosophy,” he said.

Generally, there is no notion of conservation or stewardship for First Nations, he said.

And in the same way, development as it is practised by larger Canadian industries isn’t the same as they way First Nations see it.

“It doesn’t consider notions of reciprocity or balance that many indigenous peoples strive to insert when they talk about economy,” he said.

On the practical side, King will look at land claims, particularly in Nunavut and Northern Ontario, and demonstrate how indigenous viewpoints are still marginalized.

“Land-use planning isn’t really achieving its stated goals for indigenous people,” he said. “It’s certainly working for conservationists and industry.”

The bureaucratization of First Nations is also part of his argument.

“Will they automatically lose any leverage and power by agreeing to the authority of the state and participating in the discourses of development and conservation as they define them?” he said.

Kennett, a policy scholar who has worked at the University of Calgary, believes land-use planning only needs to be tweaked, not eliminated.

We shouldn’t be discouraged because it’s hard, he said.

“Planning is not intended to be easy,” he said. “It forces us to do things that we don’t want to do, but that we often avoid. Things like thinking long-term, things like making sacrifices now to have benefits in the future, making explicit trade-offs amongst values, and reconciling competing views on contentious issues.”

If we allow business-as-usual to continue, we avoid these conflicts. But the problems will still be there.

“It’s meant to make us face difficult choices,” he said.

Planning is also very important for regulatory certainty, he said. And that’s what industry, government and First Nations always say they’re looking for.

“We all want to know what the rules are when we make an investment or when we’re working on something we care about,” he said.

For each regulatory hearing on a mine, for example, issues like the cumulative effects of water runoff come up again and again.

By having a land-use plan, those issues are largely answered, and the regulator knows how much development is too much.

“What we repeatedly have been doing in the North and across Canada is make regulatory decisions in a planning vacuum,” he said.

In the Northwest Territories, the Impact Review Board has persistently demanded planning to help guide its decisions, he said.

Planners need more policy input from government, but planners also need to be kept in the loop so the process can retain corporate memory, said Kennett.

“If you lose the people who designed the plan, you’re going to lose an understanding of why such-and-such a trade-off was made,” he said.

The risk is the plans will sit on a shelve and gather dust.

Planning is popular in the North because of bad experiences with development in the past, said Kennett. But as opinions change, so should the land-use plan. He will recommend that governments recognize how flexible land-use plans can be.

“The experience in the North is too young for people to know that,” he said.

Contact James Munson at

jamesm@yukon-news.com