The Yukon government has signed an agreement with the Kaska Nation that sets out a plan for negotiating resource management and economic development on Kaska territory.
The framework agreement was announced at the 2016 Mineral Exploration Roundup in Vancouver on Monday morning. The chiefs of the Ross River Dena Council and the Liard First Nation have both signed, as has the chairperson of the Kaska Dena Council, which represents the Kaska in B.C.
The parties have also signed four other agreements related to mineral exploration and highway reconstruction in Kaska territory, which extends over 240,000 square kilometres in northern B.C. and southeast Yukon.
“I think it’s a significant day in Yukon, reaching an agreement and a path forward to ensure that Kaska citizens benefit from economic development within the traditional territory,” Premier Darrell Pasloski told the News on Monday.
In a news release, Liard First Nation Chief Daniel Morris said the agreements are a “real opportunity.”
“The Kaska territory in the Yukon is one of the richest in timber, minerals, gas and other resource potential, and we want to benefit in a meaningful way from resource developments in our traditional lands.”
But the framework agreement doesn’t actually lay out any rules on its own. Instead, it sets out a process for the Yukon government and the Kaska Nation to negotiate future agreements related to specific sectors, including forestry, mining and oil and gas.
And it uses fairly tentative language in doing so.
“Despite holding differing views about sovereignty, jurisdiction, title and ownership, the parties seek a collaborative relationship with respect to land and resource managements and use,” it reads.
It also states that the government and the Kaska aren’t obliged to reach an agreement on anything.
Dave Porter, chief negotiator for the Kaska Dena Council, said the Kaska are proceeding with “cautious optimism.”
“The Kaska have had a very adversarial, litigious relationship with the Yukon for the better part of a decade,” he said. “We will engage in good faith and we anticipate that Yukon has similar views.”
Pasloski sounded more bullish, saying the framework agreement is an important step toward reconciliation.
“Parties of all political stripes have tried to reach a deal like this with the Kaska for decades,” he said. “It is, in fact, a significant development.”
However, the government actually did reach a resource deal with the Kaska over a decade ago. In 2003, the two parties signed a 24-month bilateral agreement “to pursue economic development opportunities in southeast Yukon.”
That agreement tasked the government with a number of obligations toward the Kaska, including that it not authorize any exploration or resource development work on Kaska traditional territory “without consulting and obtaining the consent of the Kaska.”
“This allows First Nations and the Yukon government to become full partners in the economy and to promote resource development within our traditional territory,” said then-chief Hammond Dick of the Kaska Tribal Council at the time.
But that agreement expired in 2005. A forestry agreement-in-principle between the Yukon government and the Kaska came into effect in 2004, but was cancelled in 2008.
“It’s my understanding that those agreements weren’t implemented in the way the parties may have envisioned at the time,” said Doug Eyford, the Yukon government’s chief negotiator.
Still, Eyford said he’s optimistic that the frosty relationship between the government and the Kaska is changing.
“Both parties are interested in doing things differently and in trying to advance the relationship in a new way.”
But he expects the negotiations may hit a snag when it comes to implementing new agreements. He said the Kaska want their own resource management and environmental stewardship laws to govern the agreements, but he’s not sure if their laws will align with common law.
“I expect it will be a source of conflict,” he said.
In January 2015, the Kaska Nation announced it was developing its own resource law to govern development on Kaska land.
At the time, Pasloski was criticized after he told CBC News that the Kaska couldn’t write a law because they haven’t signed a land claims agreement.
“My understanding is that Indian Act bands aren’t able to proclaim laws,” he told the CBC.
It’s unclear what became of that resource law initiative. The Kaska haven’t made any more formal announcements about it.
The framework agreement also comes with a hefty price tag. The Yukon government has promised $3.55 million to the Kaska Nation, partly to fund the negotiations. That includes a payment of $500,000 to the Liard First Nation for “community wellness and capacity development.” The Liard First Nation is currently under third-party management. Last year, the Harper government said it was going to court to try and force the First Nation to release the salaries and expenses of its chief and councillors.
But Eyford said the Yukon government will monitor how the money is being used. The agreement forbids the Kaska from using any of the funding for litigation purposes.
Porter said the funding will allow the Ross River Dena Council and the Liard First Nation to create land and resource offices, which will work together to assess development projects.
Though there is no set timeline for further discussions, Eyford said he has “no interest” in being involved in negotiations that drag on for years. He said these types of agreements can be very effective for First Nations that aren’t interested in formal treaties, because they allow them to gain more control over resource development in much less time than it takes to negotiate a treaty.
The Yukon government has also signed three mineral agreements, one with each of the Kaska parties.
Those set out a process for the government and the Kaska to discuss mineral staking on Kaska territory.
In 2012, the Yukon Court of Appeal ruled that the Yukon government has a duty to consult with the Ross River Dena Council before allowing mineral exploration on its land.
The Ross River Dena Council has upheld a moratorium on mineral staking since December 2013.
Pasloski said the government will work with the Kaska Nation to determine where mineral staking can occur, among other things.
The government also signed an agreement with Liard First Nation regarding consultation and economic opportunities related to reconstruction of the Campbell Highway.
All four of those agreements are being kept confidential, which Pasloski said is common for these types of negotiations.
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