The vice-chair of the Dawson Regional Planning Commission resigned last month, denouncing the Yukon government’s decision to permit prospective mineral staking in the area.
“It seemed to me that it was obvious the government wasn’t going to change the position on staking claims – it was just going ahead without consulting the commission,” Art Webster told the Star Tuesday.
The Dawson Regional Planning Commission was established in 2018 to develop a land use plan for 39,854 square kilometres in west-central Yukon.
Webster resigned from the commission in early September.
In his letter of resignation, the former NDP cabinet minister said he was initially enthusiastic about land planning in the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin First Nation’s traditional territory.
“I was eager to start a land planning process that would not be adversely affected by the speculative staking of mining claims as it had during the development of the Peel regional plan,” Webster wrote.
The ex-vice-chair said he was disappointed to learn in August that speculative staking would be permitted, parallel to the commission’s planning process.
“The staking of mineral claims during a land use planning exercise undermines the process, as new third party interests dictate future land use,” Webster wrote.
“From a Commission’s perspective, it handicaps our recommended plan’s ability to minimize actual and potential land use conflicts…”
Webster, a former Dawson mayor, told the Star that the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin First Nation has been advocating for a freeze to mineral staking.
The commission tried to facilitate a meeting between the First Nation and the Yukon government last March to discuss a withdrawal of land staking during the planning process.
The First Nation accepted the offer to participate, but the government did not.
Webster argues that this works against the spirit of the Umbrella Final Agreement, which dictates that land planning should be co-managed by First Nations and the territorial government.
“It doesn’t seem like there’s any co-management going on here – the Yukon government is making the decision that we definitely have a preference for mining,” Webster said.
When the Peel region was protected in 2017 after a lengthy Supreme Court of Canada battle, it left mineral stakers with claims in the region “high and dry,” Webster said.
“I am also disappointed that YG has not learned a valuable lesson from the Peel regional plan: a significant majority of Yukon people want specific areas of our territory free from industrial activity and accompanying road infrastructure,” Webster wrote in his resignation.
“They want development prohibited, and wilderness protected.”
The Peel region had placer claims for decades before the case went to the Supreme Court.
The Dawson region, comparatively, has very few claims. Webster explained that the Yukon government could avoid another situation like the Peel by halting staking now.
Liz Hanson, the NDP MLA for Whitehorse Centre, brought Webster’s resignation letter to the legislative assembly on Monday.
She questioned why the government is moving forward with land planning and staking claims in the same manner as happened in the Peel region.
“Yukoners do not want to be forced into another drawn-out and divisive court battle like the Peel, but by all accounts, this government is waiting for another court battle to save them from making a decision,” Hanson said.
Ranj Pillai, the minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, said he’s confident that agreements can be found if staked land falls under protection.
Pillai said he is currently working with those who have claims in the Peel region, and they’re looking at options to release the claims.
“They are working with us to look at different opportunities such as credits – not unlike what had happened in the Tombstone Park work,” Pillai said.
“So, we do believe that there are ways to relinquish that tenure as we move forward; that is the route we will take.”
Pillai told reporters that prospective staking doesn’t necessarily mean the land will be developed, and a balance must be struck between mineral staking and conservation.
“It’s because you’ve got really significant wildlife habitat … you have traditional areas of hunting and trapping that are extremely important to the Tr’ondëk Hwëchin,” Pillai said.
“On top of that, you have areas of mineralization and some of the most valuable mineralization in the entire country, and it’s all in the same place.”