White River wants to talk land claims with Ottawa, but needs money to prepare and a commitment to creating an entirely new deal, says chief David Johnny.
And as federal envoy Gavin Fitch prepares to come to the Yukon to meet with White River and two other Yukon First Nations about outstanding land claims, it’s unclear if the two sides will find common ground or even meet.
The major sticking points for White River are money and the Umbrella Final Agreement.
The First Nation needs a budget to prepare for a meeting that could prove pivotal to its future, said Johnny.
“The minister hired Gavin to come up to talk to us. If they have that sort of money floating around to pay someone to come up — and we’re here living on the core funding we get from Indian and Northern Affairs — we don’t have extra money to set up meetings,” he said.
“They never asked us to present them with a budget. It just can’t be chief and council (at the meetings). Membership has to be here, and we’re just not budgeted for that right now.”
White River would happily meet with Fitch and discuss land claims if it were provided a budget by INAC to prepare, said Johnny.
“We have to have legal advice, too,” he said. “I don’t have 10 or 15 lawyers like Canada has. I have to make split-second decisions.
“All he (Fitch) does is go back and say, ‘What do you think?’”
As a result, White River is exploring potential times and dates for a face-to-face meet with Fitch, but Johnny may attend the discussions only as an observer, he said.
White River is currently based on 36.3-hectares of lands-set-aside — parcels of land designated for First Nation use prior to the land claims discussions began here in the 1990s.
Unlike most regions in Canada, Yukon First Nations didn’t conclude any treaties with Canada until the 1990s.
And unlike Yukon First Nations with land claims, White River doesn’t own its lands-set-aside — and has been pushing Ottawa to expand its land, create a reserve, and give the First Nation’s citizens tax-exemptions.
White River is interested in reaching a land claim, but not one forged from the Umbrella Final Agreement, said Johnny.
“The mandate’s over, so now it’s done with — we’re not under the UFA anymore, and if Canada wants to go back to the table, they have to come back with a new set of rules negotiated with White River, to say ‘OK, what do you want in a land claim?’” he said.
“If they want to negotiate again, they have to come up with a new one.”
The Umbrella Final Agreement of 1990 is a template that frames all 11 land claims that have been signed in the Yukon, but Canada’s mandate to negotiate with the deal expired in 2005.
Fitch now has a mandate to explore all issues standing in the way of Canada reaching land claims with White River and Liard First Nations, as well as the Ross River Dena Council, said John Burdek, director of governance with INAC.
“It’s an excellent opportunity for the First Nations to discuss their concerns and their community initiatives at a very senior level,” said Burdek.
“The envoy will be reporting back to the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs (Jim Prentice)”
And all options are up for discussion during Fitch’s visit, he said.
“I think the realization is that we want to pursue every avenue and every opportunity,” said Burdek. “The ministerial envoy is going back to meet directly with the First Nations to explore exactly what the issues are, what the potential is for the best way forward.
“Whether that’s re-entering land claim negotiations or another avenue, that’s what the ministerial envoy is there to assess and hear directly from the First Nations.”
Asked if it would be unwise for White River to not meet with Fitch during his visit, Burdek responded: “We don’t often see ministerial envoys appointed.”