Ross River and territory head to court over hunting licences

The same expanse of Ross River territory that was the focus of a lengthy lawsuit over mining rights is back in court. This time the case is over big game hunting licences and seals.

The same expanse of Ross River territory that was the focus of a lengthy lawsuit over mining rights is back in court.

This time the case is over big game hunting licences and seals.

The Ross River Dena Council has taken the territory to Yukon Supreme Court, arguing that the government has a duty to consult and accommodate the First Nation prior to issuing big game hunting licences and seals under the Wildlife Act.

Environment Minister Currie Dixon said the lawsuit came as a surprise and that the case could have legal ramifications across the country.

The First Nation is asking the court to find that the failure to consult with and accommodate the Ross River Dena Council prior to issuing hunting licences and seals is inconsistent with the honour of the Crown and is a breach of the government’s duty to consult.

Issuing licences and seals by the government “might adversely affect the aboriginal title, rights and interests of the Ross River Dena Council’s members in and to the Ross River Area,” according to the lawsuit.

Dixon said his department was surprised to hear the court action had been filed.

“We hadn’t received any indication, either at the officials level or the political level, that there was any concern with the way we were issuing hunting licences and wildlife tags.”

The lawsuit came just as hunting season was about to begin, but Dixon said it doesn’t appear to affect this year’s hunts.

“Licences and seals that have been issued remain valid and legitimate and Yukon’s current hunting laws and regulations remain in effect and unchanged,” he said in a statement.

Dixon said First Nations are involved in a number of processes around the territory’s wildlife.

“In Yukon we undertake wildlife inventories and monitor wildlife populations as closely as possible. First Nations often participate in this work and information is regularly shared with them. We have processes in place, including direct engagement with First Nations, to address limitations on harvesting and develop necessary regulation for wildlife harvest in response to conservation concerns or other wildlife interests,” he said.

“This co-operative and collaborative approach to wildlife management, along with the absence of any warning or prior notice from the Ross River Dena Council makes this statement of claim all the more surprising and concerning.”

The Ross River Dena Council is one of three First Nations in the territory that do not have signed land claim agreements.

Dixon said he suspects other jurisdictions in Canada will be keeping an eye on this case.

“An unsettled First Nation requesting to be consulted and accommodated on the issuance of hunting licences and tags prior to their issuance, there’d be a fair greater effect on Ontario, B.C. and Alberta then there would be in Yukon, where we have three unsettled areas,” he said.

“The issue is considerable here in Yukon as well, but I am very sure at least that other provinces will be interested, and likewise other fish and game associations in the various provinces will probably want to take note as well.”

Meanwhile, Environment Yukon spokesperson Nancy Campbell said the department is still matching up game management subzones to the land mass in question.

That has to happen before she can say for sure whether there are any special permit hunts allowed in the area, she said.

The landmass in question is about 63,000 square kilometres in the north end of the Kaska traditional territory. It covers the communities of Ross River and Faro.

A staking ban in Ross River Dena Council territory was recently extended to January 31, 2015.

A 2012 Yukon Court of Appeal decision found that the Yukon government violates the rights of the First Nation by allowing staking on its territory without consultation.

The government went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada to request that the case be heard. They were denied.

The Yukon government has said it will meet the court’s declaration by consulting the council on what areas of the territory, if any, should be excluded from mineral staking.

The original court-imposed deadline was December 2013.

Contact Ashley Joannou at ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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