Whitehorse Daily Star

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GOVERNMENT STANCE – Lawyer John Hunter, retained by the Crown, argues that providing for development in the bulk of the Peel River watershed will not erode First Nationsʼ trust in land claim agreements.

Gwich’in Tribal Council makes its case in court

First Nations and environmental groups made their final arguments to protect the Peel River watershed Tuesday,

By Christopher Reynolds on July 9, 2014

First Nations and environmental groups made their final arguments to protect the Peel River watershed Tuesday, with a Gwich’in Tribal Council lawyer insisting the recommended land-use plan should be legally binding on government.

Jeff Langlois told Yukon Supreme Court that the plan, which shields 80 per cent of the resource-rich region from development, fulfills the aims of meaningful dialogue and reconciliation inherent in Yukon land claim agreements.

“In general, reconciliation is fostered by a long-term, positive relationship between First Nations and the Crown,” Langlois said. “(T)o promote the meaningful dialogue between parties during the land-use process,” proposals by all parties to the planning process cannot simply be discarded.

Langlois suggested the government’s adoption of a plan that opened 71 per cent of the Peel’s river-laced mountains and plateaus to resource extraction and industrial roads strayed far enough from the proposals discussed during the planning process so as to render them “pointless.”

The Umbrella Final Agreement — a comprehensive framing document for land claims in the Yukon — “does not simply say that … the Yukon government can then take those recommendations and do with them as it pleases,” he stated.

“This requirement for dialogue seems pointless if the Yukon government retains total discretion….”

The Gwich’in Tribal Council, based in the Northwest Territories, represents First Nations communities who have traditional territory in part of the northeast portion of the Peel watershed.

The council has been granted “intervenor status” in the case. They are not one of the four plaintiffs suing the government over the plan, but have the court’s consent to participate in the proceedings and comment on the issues.

The Na-Cho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nations, the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Yukon Conservation Society want Justice Ron Veale to strike down the government’s “offside” plan — adopted in January — and replace it with the one previously recommended by an independent commission.

Langlois cited a Supreme Court of Canada decision from 2010 regarding the government’s duty to consult the Little Salmon-Carmacks First Nation over land use.

The ruling upheld the original court decision — by Justice Veale — that a duty to consult exists even if it is not spelled out specifically in a land claim agreement or modern aboriginal treaty.

“The treaty is as much about building relationships as it is about the settlement of ancient grievances. The future is more important than the past,” Justice Ian Binnie wrote in the top court ruling.

Whether the government fulfilled its duty to consult First Nations and affected communities over the future of the Peel region is not in focus at the trial, but issues of genuine dialogue and reconciliation underlie both cases.

“A canoeist who hopes to make progress faces forwards, not backwards,” Binnie stated.

Langlois stressed that land claim agreements “should not be treated ungenerously or as if they were commercial contracts” — defined narrowly by the letter of the law.

He went on to distinguish between contractual agreements and “covenantal agreements.” The latter serve to build “long-term, inter-society relationships rather than contracting away aboriginal people,” he said.

John Hunter, the Yukon government’s lawyer, said adoption of a drastically different plan for the Peel would not erode its relationship with First Nations.

“We certainly agree that reconciliation is the long-term goal and the short-term goal of these processes,” he told media following yesterday’s proceedings.

“At the end of the day, somebody has to be responsible for making a decision. And our understanding of the way the treaty works is that on non-settlement land that’s the government, and on settlement land that’s the First Nations.”

Settlement lands — owned and managed by individual Yukon First Nations according to modern-day treaties — constitute less than three per cent of the Peel’s rugged sprawl, believed to contain abundant mineral wealth, including iron ore and uranium.

The other 97 per cent — non-settlement land — belongs to the state.

Hunter said the plan adopted by government, despite flipping the recommended plan on its head, would not discourage First Nations from entering into future land claim agreements, which lay out the provisions for land-use planning.

“Why would First Nations give up common law rights to have this kind of treaty? Well, they would because they are going to have settlement lands over which they have the last word, and yet they’re still going to be involved in the decision-making process on non-settlement lands, even though they don’t have the last word on non-settlement lands.

“Seems to be a pretty good arrangement all around,” he said.

Pioneering aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger, retained by the plaintiffs, said that the government was limited to modifications it proposed during the seven-year planning process, and could not go “on a frolic” and carry out widely different provisions for the region.

“You’ve come too late to the party,” Berger said yesterday regarding the government’s last-minute changes.

He also cited Supreme Court of Canada precedents, like last year’s ruling in favour of the Manitoba Metis Federation over a land deal the federal government failed to follow through on — in 1870.

The decision spoke to the “honour of the Crown,” which the territorial government has a duty to uphold along with the “integrity” of the Umbrella Final Agreement, Berger said.

He echoed Langlois in quoting Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, who stated a treaty reading “cannot be a legalistic one.”

Hunter is presenting his arguments to the court today. The civil trial is slated to run through Friday, though may conclude tomorrow given the pace of the proceedings, he said.

The courtroom was filled every day so far with First Nations elders, interested parties and media. About 60 people packed the public gallery Wednesday, along with observers in a courtroom down the hall equipped with in-house video streaming of the proceedings.

An all-day fire circle is being held at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre through the week.

On Thursday, elders and youth will tell stories, show images, sing and dance at an event at the cultural centre from noon to 1 p.m.

Comments (1)

Up 1 Down 1

Sandy Helland on Jul 10, 2014 at 5:48 pm

It's not right to restrict First Nation say-so to "mining" only.
Any industry that threatens water and habitat is within their jurisdiction on and near their lands.

Oil and gas activities certainly do impact First Nations' land. Such activities destroy land and water.

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