When supporters of the Peel commission’s recommended plan packed an independent public forum in Whitehorse last week, Yukon government staff wouldn’t enter the room.
On Monday in Mayo, they did – though they didn’t say much.
Senior land use planners Jim Bell and Manon Moreau accepted an invitation from Nacho Nyak Dun Chief Ed Champion to join a public meeting with about 50 other Mayo-area residents to talk about the Peel plan and the government’s proposed changes.
The residents did most of the talking.
“We are passionate about only talking about the commission’s recommended plan. That’s it, that’s all. We’re not compromising any more than that,” said Champion, spokesman for the four First Nations involved in the planning process.
The community’s biggest concern is that the government’s proposed plan for the Peel is a breach of the Umbrella Final Agreement, said Champion.
The UFA lays out legal requirements for the government to consult with affected First Nations before going ahead with any proposed development in their traditional territory.
The Peel planning commission was set up in 2005 to do just that. But the Yukon government waited until October, after the commission’s work had wrapped up, to release details of how it would like to open up the Peel to development.
Champion and others, including Peel commission chair Dave Loeks, have said that is a breach of the agreement because these details should have been disclosed earlier.
If the government doesn’t agree to discuss the commission’s recommendations instead of the new changes by the time the consultation period ends in February, the First Nations say they will take the government to court.
“We’re already setting up the legal framework that we’ll be using. CPAWS (the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society) has their legal team on board. That’s some pretty serious firepower that’s being lined up to do what’s right,” said Champion.
The commission’s plan would see 80 per cent of the Peel protected from mining claims, roads and oil and gas permits. Construction of access roads would be banned in the protected areas.
The government’s proposed changes, meanwhile, would leave most of the Peel open to staking, and it doesn’t ban any roads.
Elder Elsie Hugh called the government’s actions an act of colonialism.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves,” she said.
“I’m sick and tired of coming to open houses like this where the government is afraid to listen or answer questions,” said Hugh.
The meeting took place at the community centre, in a room just metres from the Yukon government’s Peel open house in Mayo.
Moreau and Bell both said they would prefer residents to come to the open house to talk one-on-one. Few people took them up on the offer, most instead favouring an open, public discussion.
“They say they want to hear from the public, but they already have – through the commission’s report, which was over six years and $1.5 million of taxpayers’ money,” said Gerald Isaac, a senior planning advisor for the Yukon Land Use Planning Council.
The planning council is an independent body meant to help all the parties work together when commissions are set up.
“There are many aspects proposed in (the government’s) concept, things that came out of the back rooms of the Yukon boardrooms. They come straight to the public to express these views on a document that’s not even a formal draft yet,” said Isaac.
As community members and elders spoke, the whole evening became as much an airing of longstanding grievances as it was a protest specific to the Peel.
Many people were moved to tears describing what they feel is a pattern of disrespect from the government.
Long-time guide Jimmy Johnny said he’s worried about polluted water affecting people downstream in Fort McPherson, as toxins from Alberta’s tarsands are affecting Fort Chipewyan.
Through it all, Bell and Moreau stood at the front of the room, stone-faced and silent.
Twenty-year-old Jerry-Lee Buyck broke down in the midst of a story about flying to Nash Creek last summer.
“It’s so beautiful and it scares me that this could be taken away from us just so that you guys can keep your paycheque for two years. It makes me so sad for you, that you’re not able to see that,” she said, her voice cracking as the crowd applauded.
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