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Valcourt digs in heels over comments on First Nation governments

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt insists he's said nothing wrong by asserting that Yukon First Nations are not governments, as far as the Umbrella Final Agreement is concerned. Many disagree.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt insists he’s said nothing wrong by asserting that Yukon First Nations are not governments, as far as the Umbrella Final Agreement is concerned.

Many disagree. His comment has outraged Yukon’s chiefs. MP Ryan Leef says Valcourt’s comments may have been misunderstood, but there should be no doubt that First Nations are governments. Premier Darrell Pasloski agrees and says he plans to write to the minister to clarify the matter.

Valcourt made the contentious statements during a meeting with Yukon chiefs on Monday. “The minister shut us down by telling us we are ‘not real governments’ and therefore he does not need to make us active participants in changing legislation that arises from our treaties,” said Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation Chief Eric Fairclough in a statement.

“This flies in the face of recent court decisions that have affirmed the duty to consult First Nations. It is an insult and a signal to First Nations everywhere that our views don’t count.”

During a hearing of the Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Committee on Wednesday, Valcourt tried to clarify what he meant.

It’s not that First Nations aren’t governments, he insisted, it’s just that they aren’t governments under the Umbrella Final Agreement.

First Nations oppose four proposed amendments to Yukon’s environmental assessment laws and say they’ll sue unless changes are made.

One of their objections, Valcourt told the committee, is that a proposed change to allow the minister to delegate powers to the Yukon government violates the UFA.

“Their argument is that, you know, they should be, under the umbrella agreement considered as governments, and unfortunately that was not the deal concluded,” he said.

“The umbrella agreement is clear that governments is defined as either Canada or Yukon.”

So far, few seem to agree with him.

Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski, who has cheered on the proposed changes, said he will be asking Valcourt to correct the record. Chapter 24 of the UFA clearly provides for First Nation self-government, he said.

“Yukon First Nation final agreements make up just under half of Canada’s modern land claim agreements, and Yukon First Nations are global leaders in the area of aboriginal self-government,” Pasloski said.

“This is something all Yukoners can be incredibly proud of.”

Yukon MP Ryan Leef attempted to clarify his colleague’s remarks while also disagreeing with him personally during an interview yesterday.

Leef, who was part of the meeting with the First Nations, said Valcourt was using the strictest definition of the Umbrella Final Agreement.

“His remarks that the Yukon First Nations were offended by were really in respect to that strict definition that’s contained in the front pages of the Umbrella Final Agreement.”

Leef said it’s his personal belief that under the UFA, First Nations should be considered governments.

“My personal belief is yeah, and I’ve never operated otherwise. I’ve certainly never operated otherwise.”

Leef said he spoke with First Nation representatives the day after the meeting with Valcourt to discuss the issue.

“I don’t think that they have any sense that there’s a question mark on my part what Yukon First Nations are or are not responsible for,” he said.

Northern affairs expert Ken Coates said it’s important to recognize that the authority of First Nation governments has expanded. The strict definition under the UFA “represents 20-year-old thinking,” he said.

“And that’s fair enough, 20 years ago that was the way we talked.”

Since then, there are now processes around the duty to consult and aboriginal self-government agreements, he said.

Modern treaties and things like aboriginal development corporations and revenue-sharing agreements mean the First Nations have independent funds, independent responsibilities and legal duties.

“Quite frankly, if it looks like a moose and it walks like a moose and it runs like a moose, it’s got to be a moose,” Coates said.

Contact Ashley Joannou at