The Liard First Nation may no longer be equipped to participate in environmental assessments that affect its traditional territory.
Sarah Newton was the lands manager for the First Nation until earlier this month, when she was laid off by the third party manager, she says.
Part of her job was engaging with the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board to make sure that the First Nation’s concerns are addressed when mining or oil-and-gas work are proposed that will impact its traditional territory.
“The information I got from Aboriginal Affairs was that the YESAA activities are not considered an essential service to the First Nation, so that’s where that stands right now,” said Newton in an interview this week.
A spokesperson for Aboriginal Affairs confirmed that the First Nation remains under third party management, but that decisions about what services are cut are up to the manager.
Calls to the First Nation offices this week went to voicemail, and messages were not returned.
The federal government placed Liard First Nation under third party management in August.
At the time Chief Daniel Morris said the First Nation owed Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada $708,000.
In January 2014 Morris’s administration abruptly laid off 40 staff and closed the band office, although it was later re-opened, and at least some of the positions were reinstated.
It has been a very difficult time for the community, said Newton.
“Elders were having a really hard time getting wood, and a lot of the programs that they had come to depend on were suspended,” she said.
“A lot of them were calling me to find out if there’s anything I can do to help, and unfortunately there wasn’t.”
Things have stabilized somewhat under the new management, she said.
“They seem to be doing an OK job at providing really basic services.”
But the skeleton staff coupled with entrenched social struggles are affecting the ability of the First Nation to engage with important questions about what happens on its traditional territory, said Newton.
“If you don’t have really basic human needs taken care of, as far as water and food and shelter and those kinds of things – when those are at risk then it’s very hard to pay attention to what’s going on at the higher level, politically especially. These are really large issues that the Yukon is addressing right now.”
A committee of the Yukon Legislative Assembly recently released its report on the risks and benefits of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the territory.
The Liard First Nation is most likely to be affected by fracking, as ELFO Energy Inc. has indicated an interest in using the technique to access natural gas in the Kotaneelee field of southeast Yukon in the next five or 10 years.
However, with many members of the First Nation struggling to meet basic needs, it has been difficult to properly engage on the question, said Newton.
“When I was working there the past year we had extremely limited capacity, but I’ve been working to try and build more – getting the elders meeting on a regular basis, and starting to try and work on specific projects, hiring environmental monitors and getting people trained in some basic water science,” she said.
For the elders, “the protection of the water resources and the wildlife, and everything that’s associated with that, is their paramount concern.”
“Their primary concern is for the environment and for future generations. From their knowledge base, the best way to protect that is trying to get people back to living a healthy lifestyle, on the land, essentially.”
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board is required to consult First Nations that may be affected when assessing development projects.
“We do have obligations under the legislation to ensure that First Nation concerns and interests are adequately addressed or reflected in our assessments and we’ll continue to try and ensure that that’s the case,” said Tim Smith, executive director of YESAB.
He said it’s unclear at this point how limited capacity at the Liard First Nation will affect current and future assessments.
“We’re still trying to find out what we can about the situation,” he said.
“I don’t want to speculate on particular situations. It would be very context-dependent I would think. Certainly if there was a major development scenario unfolding on their traditional territory we would want to do everything possible to ensure that Liard First Nation has an opportunity to participate in that assessment.”
Just before Newton was laid off she submitted comments on behalf of the First Nation about EFLO Energy’s plans to get two Kotaneelee gas wells back into production, she said.
In the letter she points out that the First Nation has no impact benefit agreement with the company, as required by the Yukon Oil and Gas Act.
The assessment board recommended that the project proceed, subject to conditions, but noted that the Yukon government is required to consult with the First Nation before issuing a decision document.
A spokesperson for Energy, Mines and Resources confirmed that a licence can be granted for the work before a benefit agreement is in place, but that the work cannot begin until a deal is struck.
EFLO Energy Inc. could not be immediately reached for comment.
Contact Jacqueline Ronson at