Vuntut Gwitchin elder and Yukon dog-mushing legend Stephen Frost is a straight shooter.
The 81-year-old admits he doesn’t know much about the far away Peel River watershed, but he’s certainly no stranger to the land that lies in between.
So instead of giving his two bits about the Peel to the six-member Yukon government contingent at their open-house-turned-public-meeting on Monday, Frost said he wanted to tell a story.
It was 1954. He was with Charlie Abel, who later became chief of the First Nation.
They were travelling by dog team between Johnson Creek and the Whitestone River when they ran into the first seismic crew clawing its way through the Eagle Plain region by bulldozer.
The newcomers were friendly enough. They even showed the young mushers how to drive a Cat and work the blade.
But the chance encounter marked the start of a new era that doesn’t hold many other fond memories.
“Too many times we see damage done to the land,” said Frost. “Way back, there’s some awful stories about what’s been left by oil companies. I’m not against nobody, I’m just telling the story of why people are so darned worried.”
Worried about the land. Worried about the water.
And especially worried about the Porcupine caribou herd.
So closely tied are the two that the map of the barrenground caribou’s range is a mirror image of the map of the Gwich’in nation.
“That poor Porcupine caribou herd – it don’t mean a darn thing to some people in the south and it shouldn’t. It’s not their style of life but to us it means lots,” said Frost.
“I guess we depend on that Porcupine caribou herd like a lot of people depend on farming.”
Frost almost didn’t get the chance to tell his story.
When he first arrived at the community hall, the bureaucrats tried to send him and several others on the “information station” circuit. Instead the men grabbed chairs at the first table they came to, sat down and politely listened while former politician Lorraine Netro pushed for a presentation and comment period.
“An open house is not consultation,” said Netro. “It’s not the way we do it here.”
After some deliberation, the government finally caved, but by then a group of school students who’d come to learn about the Peel had already bailed.
Before the presentation began, Netro gave an opening prayer, followed by a few moments of silence in honour of former Peel commissioner and Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Steve Taylor, who died suddenly on the weekend.
Then senior planner Jim Bell tried to spell out what the government is trying to do with the Peel, but he spoke so quietly, and without a microphone, that few, including Frost, could hardly hear a word he said.
When the floor finally opened for public comment, William Josie wasted no time reminding the government about its obligations under the Umbrella Final Agreement.
“There was a process through the UFA and I recommend to your government to stick to that process,” said Josie.
“We had a letter of understanding…. If you stray from the UFA, there will be no more land plans in the Yukon and it’s all going to end up in court.”
Netro also urged the government to scrap its new “concepts” and go with the plan prepared by the planning commission after its years of research and consultation.
“We have to have a clear understanding of what the meaning of consultation is,” she said.
“What it means to you is very different than what it means to me. Our voices are not being heard. We can have a consultation process and what we say and what you say you’re going to do are two different things.”
Look no further than the TV to see that First Nations across the country are losing trust in the way government is doing business, she said.
“The First Nations people in northern Alberta can’t even eat their fish now because the waters are poisoned,” said Netro. “We don’t want that to happen in the Yukon.”
To Stanley Njootli Jr., who chairs the North Yukon Renewable Resource Council, the final recommended plan – which protects 80 per cent of the watershed – seems to be what most Yukoners want for the region.
“This is the voice of the people – this final recommended plan – and I think it should stand as the final recommended plan,” he said.
“The consultations were all done, all across the board, all across the Yukon….This (the plan) is the voice of the people and the voice of the people should be heard.”
The North Yukon land-use plan, which was finalized by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation and the Yukon government in 2009, never had the problems the Peel is experiencing, the resource council’s Nick Gray pointed out.
“That process went quite well in comparison to this one,” said Gray. “They didn’t run into this kind of thing.”
However, the government didn’t introduce new “concepts” at the 11th hour to undermine the North Yukon plan like it has with the Peel.
He said Old Crow had faith in the Peel commission because it had a Vuntut Gwitchin representative and it came to the community to hear what the people had to say.
When he asked the officials if the government will listen if most people support the final recommended plan, they said they couldn’t say because they aren’t the decision-makers.
But they assured him that no decisions had yet been made.
“The consultation is on the final recommended plan,” said government planner Manon Moreau.
“As part of the consultation, we wanted to add some information about another zoning to try to see if there was any appetite there, to see if we could get some feedback on that,” she said of the government’s Peel “concepts.”
The public has until Feb. 25 to submit comments about the Peel plan.
Following that the government plans to hold consultations with First Nation governments, she said.
Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Joe Linklater didn’t attend the open house in Old Crow even though he was in town.
Since the Yukon government has left the four affected First Nations out of this consultation process, the First Nation governments, in turn, are not participating in the open houses.