Robert Kennedy Jr. wades into the Peel debate

When a Kennedy stands up to talk about democracy, a lot of people listen.

When a Kennedy stands up to talk about democracy, a lot of people listen. So when one member of the famed family came to Whitehorse to paddle the Alsek River and talk about resource extraction, a few hundred showed up at the Yukon Arts Centre to hear what he had to say.

Robert Kennedy Jr. spoke at the arts centre on Monday night, and his message was clear: economies based on resource extraction undermine democracy.

“When you have extractive-based economies you have a few people becoming billionaires by essentially impoverishing the rest of the people,” Kennedy said.

He spoke for over an hour about his experiences as a high-powered environmental lawyer in the U.S. He’s fought environmental polluters across the country. One of his most famous battlegrounds was the Hudson River, which used to be one of the deadest rivers in America, he said.

“You could see it change colours depending on what colour they were painting the trucks at the factory upstream,” he said.

Now, it’s once again teeming with fish, thanks in large part to work done by local fishers who banded with Kennedy to form the Waterkeepers Alliance, which sued big polluters for big dollars, and won. Monday’s talk was also a fundraiser for Waterkeepers.

Throughout his career, Kennedy said he saw examples of resource companies gaining the upper political hand and using it to enrich themselves at the cost of the public.

There are huge hidden costs, which Kennedy called subsidies, that resource companies take advantage of, unbeknownst to most. Even roads are a good example. Heavy trucks hauling equipment, fuel and minerals up and down public highways cause damage to the roads but the companies don’t pay for it – the public does.

But the larger concern, he said, is that as resource companies control ever-larger portions of the public commons and wealth, they can start to subvert democracy. That’s what has happened with the Peel planning process, he said.

“The First Nations wanted 100 per cent of the Peel preserved, but they compromised in good faith,” Kennedy told reporters before his presentation.

“And then the current government released its own plan and essentially took that five years of intense consultation and threw it into the garbage, and proposed a plan that was not approved by the stakeholders, including the First Nations, but instead seemed to be the product of a consultation with the oil and gas industry, and the extractive industries. To me, that’s not model democratic process.”

Monday wasn’t the first time Kennedy waded into the Peel. At a press conference last week he made similar comments, which drew the ire of Yukon Environment Minister Currie Dixon.

In an interview with the Whitehorse Star, Dixon accused Kennedy of being an elitist and spouting ill-informed nonsense.

“I want to thank him for welcoming me to the territory,” Kennedy said on Monday, chuckling.

But he dismissed most of Dixon’s comments as ad hominem attacks designed to skirt the real issues.

“It’s a personal attack, which I understand generally people make those kind of attacks when they don’t want to argue the case on its merits. What I would like to hear from the minister is why he believes that this process was democratic. Maybe I’m wrong. I don’t know that much about this process, but from what I’ve been told about it, it looks extraordinarily undemocratic,” Kennedy said.

On Thursday, Dixon dialed down his rhetoric, but he remained adamant that Kennedy doesn’t understand the issues.

“I think Mr. Kennedy has some interesting and potentially valuable perspectives on the matter. But what I find a bit frustrating is that he doesn’t seem to have the understanding of the local Yukon context on the subject that he’s talking about.

“In particular, he didn’t seem to understand the challenges and opportunities that come with implementing multiple modern comprehensive land claims agreements against the backdrop of a local economy that is based primarily on the sustainable development of our natural resources,” Dixon said.

Dixon said that the government has followed the Umbrella Final Agreement “to a tee” and will continue to do so until the process is complete.

When asked which of Kennedy’s views he did think were interesting and valuable, Dixon replied, “Well, I think I would want to reflect on that a little bit. It’s important that people from outside the Yukon understand that while we do have a beautiful and big territory, people do live here. And in order for them to continue to do so, there needs to be jobs and opportunities. The development of our natural resources often provides that opportunity.”

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