Yukon Supreme Court sides with federal gov't against Ross River Dena Council
The Yukon government and the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation have avoided another court case over First Nations rights.
The First Nation filed a lawsuit last June, claiming the territorial government wasn't respecting its final agreement when it came to allowing mineral exploration activities. They argued that the government was allowing exploration on non-settlement land without first notifying, consulting and accommodating the First Nation.
"Their argument was very straightforward — it was simply that the government has a duty to notify, consult and, where appropriate, accommodate them prior to allowing any exploration activity in their traditional territory that might affect their rights under their agreement," said Steve Walsh, a Whitehorse lawyer who represented the Tr'ondek Hwech'in.
A trial was scheduled for this week, but the government avoided that by signing a consent order earlier this month agreeing that mining exploration activities may adversely affect the First Nations rights, and also agreeing it has a duty to consult and accommodate.
The consent order doesn't come into effect for a year, which Walsh says gives both parties ample time to reach an agreement on just what "consult and accommodate'" should look like.
First Nations 'ought to be encouraged'
Walsh says the case was originally filed when the Yukon Party was in power, and arose from that government's stance on First Nations' final agreements.
"It's important to clarify that the events — the problems that gave rise to the trial that was going to start [Thursday] — occurred under the last government ... the particular events that the Tr'ondek Hwech'in were concerned about arose then."
Walsh said the ouster of the Yukon Party government in November made a difference in how the case was handled.
"Premier Silver and his [Liberal] government moved with some dispatch, they didn't let any grass grow under their feet on this," he said. "The negotiations occurred a few weeks back. My understanding is that they proceeded amicably and produced a quick result."
Walsh says the case "augurs well" for future relations between First Nations and the territorial government.
"It clarifies what they [government] need to do, and based on how Premier Silver's government has handled this issue, I think that First Nations ought to be encouraged that it's going to go in the right direction."
Walsh said Yukon's First Nations spent a lot of time negotiating their final agreements, and "they simply want them respected."
As for the impact on the mineral exploration, Walsh pointed out that the lawsuit was not aimed at the mining industry.
"The legal proceedings weren't aimed at the mining industry at all, and for the most part it won't impact them," he said.
"My experience has been that the mining industry simply wants to know what the rules of the game are, and they will play by them. What they don't like is uncertainty."