Peel pivot could prove calamitous

We are in serious trouble if the public and the First Nations lose confidence in the Yukon land use planning process and it falters. Continued access to lands and resources depends on it.

by Dave Loeks

We are in serious trouble if the public and the First Nations lose confidence in the Yukon land use planning process and it falters. Continued access to lands and resources depends on it.

Apparently misunderstanding this, Premier Darrell Pasloski, Resources Minister Brad Cathers and their colleagues are steering us on a collision course with calamity.

A full-page ad from the Yukon government about the Peel watershed plan states: “We want to hear from you.” The territory has already heard from Yukoners through six years of a well-funded, well-attended planning process, as required by the Umbrella Final Agreement.

The public’s message has been clear and consistent: the majority supports the plan written by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. A minority wants road access for development throughout the Peel region.

A majority, including the First Nations, wants full protection for the entire region. The plan offers a reasoned compromise: resource development and roads for about 20 per cent of the region, conservation protection for about 50 per cent, and interim protection – to be reviewed every 10 years – for the remainder.

Existing mining claims could continue to be evaluated everywhere. They could even be developed in the protected zones.

The key provision is no road access in the protected zones. This is essential because First Nation governments and citizens and the majority of Yukoners made plain that what they really value about the Peel is its roadlessness.

There is not much of this kind of country left in the Yukon,  much less in the rest of the world. And they prize it. The commission reasoned that development and protection could be balanced by excluding roads but permitting industrial air access.

After all, roads are costly and air access technology continues to improve. The public clearly supported the commission’s approach and the First Nation governments accepted it, even though they wanted 100 per cent protection. The Yukon government could have accepted the plan, too.

The current Yukon government does not like what the public said, so they drafted their own plan behind closed doors. This should bother any thinking Yukoner, regardless of what you think about the Peel plan.

This goes way beyond a planning issue; it addresses the core of democratic governance. By ignoring the clearly expressed will of the majority, and the requirements of the Umbrella Final Agreement, Mr. Pasloski and his colleagues are saying that they understand the public interest better than the public does.

There is nothing in the resumes of Mr. Pasloski and his cabinet to indicate such unusual insight. We did not elect a Churchill or a Roosevelt – much less a Dear Leader – to do our thinking for us. Yukoners can think for themselves.

When we clearly express ourselves, we should expect our government to reflect our interests in public policy. What we are seeing from the Yukon Party is arrogance, if not delusions of grandeur. We need our MLAs to be faithful public servants, not misguided visionaries.

Too bad it doesn’t stop here. The alternatives to the Peel plan currently floated by the government are misleading and manipulative – a reprise of their infamous “balance” advertisements of six month ago.

The government knows that the bottom-line interest of their First Nation partners and the majority of Yukoners is to keep the Peel landscape roadless. The territory’s alternatives will provide road access to 86 per cent of the planning region. Then they blandly and misleadingly apply the label “wilderness” to these zones. They even colour them a reassuring green.

This is a snow job, maybe worthy of a mendacious ad agency, but unworthy of an elected government.

Finally, and possibly the worst: the Yukon government has disregarded the spirit, the intent, and likely the letter of the Umbrella Final Agreement regarding land use planning. They apparently believe that at the end of the day they can manage “their” lands in the Peel as they see fit, despite having signed onto an agreement and a process on planning that is constitutionally-based. Very reckless.

They are putting the reputation of the Yukon government – and our prosperity – on the line. The Umbrella Final Agreement has provided the Yukon with 20 years of stability on the premise of effective co-operation with First Nations. By its actions regarding the Peel plan, the Yukon government is calling this relationship into question.

Thoughtful citizens – and self-interested business leaders – should ponder the possible consequences if the legitimacy of our land-management regime is challenged.

Why run this risk? The Peel watershed plan affects just one of eight planning regions in the Yukon and it offers a compromise that preserves future options to develop and even allows development in protected areas. Does industry want it all? Does the Yukon government really want to bulldoze its way over its First Nation partners and the majority of Yukoners?

We’ve seen this before: George Bush and his late administration operated in the U.S. with a similar disdain for compromise and a similar appetite for misrepresentation. It ended badly.

Dave Loeks was chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission.

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