Indian Affairs Minister Jim Prentice is sending an emissary to the Yukon in a bid to resume settling outstanding land claims with three Yukon First Nations.
“He’s been appointed by the minister to meet directly with the First Nations and explore the potential of re-engaging or settling the outstanding land claims,” said John Burdek, director of governance with Indian and Northern Affairs Canada.
The emissary, Gavin Fitch, will hold meetings next week with White River and Liard First Nations, and the Ross River Dena Council, said Burdek.
The three are the only First Nations in the Yukon that failed to conclude a land-claim deal before Canada’s mandate to negotiate expired.
And it appears Ottawa’s olive branch couldn’t have been timed better.
Just this week, White River called on Indian Affairs to respond to its request to create a reserve in the community near Beaver Creek.
Reserve status would grant White River citizens the same legal status that on-reserve First Nations in southern Canada have.
And it could help White River economically as well, said a release from the First Nation.
“The benefits of creating reserve lands for this remote community are far reaching for other First Nations in the Yukon, when one considers the potential joint-venturing, partnering and investment opportunities with such possible projects as the Alaska Highway Pipeline and mining exploration in the Yukon,” said the release.
White River has requested a reserve be created in the community and the tax-exemption status that goes along with it, said Burdek.
During his stop in Beaver Creek, Fitch will discuss this and other options, including resuming negotiations for a land claim agreement, he said.
While many First Nations people in southern Canada live on reserves, few reserves were created in the Yukon, said Dermot Flynn of the Yukon’s land claims and implementation secretariat.
“The lay of the land in the Yukon has been that most Indian bands didn’t live on reserves,” said Flynn.
Without a land claim agreement freeing them from the Indian Act — and without a reserve — White River, Liard and Ross River remain living on land designated as “lands-set-aside,” said Flynn.
Reserve bands in southern Canada have successively won dozens of concessions from Ottawa, including exemptions from paying income tax.
Before land claim agreements started coming into effect in the mid 1990s, Ottawa extended similar exemptions to Yukon First Nations, said Flynn.
But rules for First Nations living on lands-set-aside are not as well entrenched as those for reserve bands, he said.
“The important point is that lands-set-aside are not reserves under the Indian Act,” said Flynn. “Lots of court rulings that apply to reserves don’t apply to lands-set aside. You can’t import the attributes of a reserve to these lands-set-aside parcels.”
White River contends a reserve should have been created for its community more than 20 years ago.
The First Nation’s 36.3 hectares of lands-set-aside are “significantly lower” than regional and national averages, it said in the release.
Ross River took Canada all the way to the Supreme Court in its fight to have its lands-set-aside considered as reserves.
In 2002, the court ruled against the First Nation.
Several self-governing First Nations retain reserve lands, but are not reserves, said Flynn.
The most well-known examples of these are the Marwell area, which is a reserve of Kwanlin Dun First Nation, and the Moosehide reserve near Dawson City held by the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation.
Bands under the Indian Act do not own reserves, while First Nations with land claim and self-government agreements own their land, said Flynn.
Self-governing First Nations are in a different economic position than those with a reserve, he said.
“A First Nation with a reserve wouldn’t have the same ability to manage and benefit from resources that might be on or under the land,” said Flynn.
Calls to White River First Nation were not returned.