Na-Cho Nyäk Dun Chief Simon Mervyn is rejecting the Yukon government’s new wetlands policy, while Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph is accusing territorial leaders of not listening.
The two First Nations are urging the Yukon government to work with Yukon First Nations to immediately change its recently released wetlands policy.
In a Jan. 17 joint press release, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun said the policy fails to address First Nation’s concerns. The First Nations are arguing that the policy falls short of quickly and efficiently protecting wetland ecosystems.
“Yukon government’s wetlands policy is unacceptable, and our First Nation rejects it,” Mervyn said in the release.
“The policy was developed unilaterally by public government.”
The policy intends to protect the most important wetlands, such as bogs, fens, marshes, swamps and shallow open waters, while allowing for resource development and land use activities.
In the policy, a blanket approach for applying a “mitigation hierarchy” for managing human impacts on wetlands throughout the territory has been established, which means proponents will have to show how and to what extent they will avoid impacting wetlands, minimize impacts to wetlands which cannot be fully avoided, reclaim impacted wetlands and offset residual impacts to wetland benefits.
“The implementation of this policy will be guided by the best available knowledge and by respect for the knowledge, culture and rights of Indigenous Peoples,” reads the policy.
The release notes that culture tied to traditional wetland activities is at risk of being lost forever as the First Nations are drawn further and further from the land and climate change takes its toll.
“Yukon government’s policy for the stewardship of wetlands has not applied a protection first approach to wetlands,” reads the release.
“Instead, while acknowledging that there exists a minimal understanding of benefits, location, type and extent of wetlands across the Yukon, this policy allows for continued development of all wetland classes and offers minimal guidance as to when and how impacts can be avoided and/or mitigated.”
The release characterizes the protection mechanisms that are offered as “administratively burdensome, and the process lacks effective protective measures for wetlands of special importance.”
Mervyn said Na-Cho Nyäk Dun’s concerns were almost totally ignored.
Chapter 14 of the Yukon First Nation Final Agreements defines the right of Yukon First Nations to use water for traditional use, the right to exclusive use of water on or flowing through its settlement land and the right to have water on, flowing through or adjacent to settlement land remain substantially unaltered.
“The rights to water enshrined in Chapter 14 of our modern treaty are being eroded. This continues a pattern of Yukon First Nations being treated — at best — as stakeholders on our own lands and in our own territories. This policy is inconsistent with a respectful, government-to-government relationship among the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun and the governments of Canada and Yukon,” Mervyn said.
“We call on Yukon government to rescind the policy and to return to the table with a commitment to truly co-developing a new wetlands policy that respects our treaty rights and protects the waters and wetlands of our territory for our future generations.”
A Jan. 10 release from Yukon government on the wetlands policy states that it was developed with input from Yukon First Nations governments and transboundary Indigenous nations, as well as municipal and federal governments, boards and councils, industry, non-government organizations and the public.
A March 2022 What We Heard report highlights significant concerns had been raised about the draft policy’s lack of attention to Indigenous jurisdictions, authorities, rights and title and the need for greater protections to wetlands. The report indicates both First Nations took part in a roundtable and directly submitted on the draft policy.
An appendix in the final policy states the Yukon government held a final consultation stage with Indigenous governments and groups in fall 2022.
Energy, Mines and Resources Minister John Streicker said he reached out to the two chiefs after they expressed their concerns through the media release, and they have agreed to talk more about it with the Yukon government.
“What I hear them saying is that they want more — they want the policy to go further,” he said.
“If their main concern is that there’d be more, then I don’t think it would make sense to rescind it.”
Streicker said the Yukon government saw a range of positions and he appreciates that Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation and the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyäk Dun want something stronger.
“But I would never say that means that we didn’t listen to them,” he said.
Streicker said the policy is an important first step to addressing the First Nations’ concerns. He said the policy is built to “allow us to adapt and pivot and learn” and “make sure that we continue to protect those values of wetlands.”
In terms of how the policy could go further, Streicker said the Yukon government has already indicated areas for more research, such as the effects of northern wetlands on carbon storage and release.
“Let’s take the concerns that are being expressed by Chief Mervyn and Chief Joseph on behalf of their nations to look to see if we can focus that research so that it strengthens the strategy in areas where they’re most concerned,” Streicker said.
Contact Dana Hatherly at firstname.lastname@example.org