The Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation has joined the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun and conservation groups in their legal battle with the Yukon government over the fate of the Peel watershed.
Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale struck down the Yukon government’s plan for the Peel after a court case last summer, ruling that it did not follow the process outlined in final agreements with First Nations.
The Yukon government is now appealing that decision. The case will be heard in August.
Vuntut Gwitchin joined the other First Nations as respondents in the appeal after a court hearing on Monday.
“The decision to file as respondents in this case was not taken lightly,” according to news release sent by the First Nation late last week.
“Our government has concerns regarding Yukon’s conduct during the later stages of the Peel planning process. We will continue to be vigilant to protect the integrity of our final and self-government agreements, including the regional land use planning provisions.”
The First Nation had previously said that it wouldn’t join the case because its traditional territory within the Peel only accounts for three per cent of the planning region, and the Yukon government’s plan for those areas was substantially close enough to what the planning commission had recommended.
Since that time there has been a leadership change in the First Nation. Joe Linklater opted against running for a sixth term as chief, and Roger Kyikavichik was elected to replace him.
The Gwich’in Tribal Council had its application approved to act as an intervenor in the appeal.
The First Nation will put forward a similar submission to the original court case, said lawyer Jeff Langlois, who represents the council.
“It’s a really important case for our client. They were very happy with Justice Veale’s decision, but obviously there’s a lot of nervousness that comes into this appeal.”
The council will support the position put forward by the other First Nations and the original judgement by Ron Veale, and it will also urge the court not to make a ruling on the question of adequate consultation, which is not at issue in this case, said Langlois.
Such a ruling could inadvertently and unnecessarily thwart potential further legal action in the case, he said.
The Yukon Land Use Planning Council also applied to act as an intervenor in the appeal.
Both the Yukon government and the respondents opposed the motion. The judge said he will make a decision on the issue in the coming weeks.
The planning council could not be reached for comment by press time.
In the legislature on Monday, Premier Darrell Pasloski said he reached out to First Nations after Veale’s ruling to negotiate a settlement in the case.
“As premier, I spoke to the chiefs of the First Nations, our lawyers spoke to the First Nation lawyers and our government staff spoke with First Nation staff. In all cases, the answer to our offer was no,” he said.
“We fully understand their right to make this decision, but it was a disappointment to us, because we would prefer to not be in court. We would prefer to work together to find solutions as partners, as we have done in so many other cases.”
Gill Cracknell, executive director of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon, said the plaintiffs did not feel negotiating a settlement would be the correct response to Veale’s judgement.
CPAWS Yukon was a plaintiff in the case, and Cracknell also joined the plaintiffs as an individual.
“We were all in complete agreement that it wouldn’t be appropriate to discuss any proposals to interrupt the conclusion of the process as laid down by the court.”
Veale had ruled that the government did not complete the planning process outlined in the final agreements, and that it must do so.
The correct next step would be for the Yukon government to consult the public as laid out in Veale’s decision, not negotiate behind closed doors with First Nations, said Cracknell.
“The judge’s order ruled that was the law,” she said. “It affects the interests of all Yukoners as well as the First Nations.”
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