Yukon First Nation could negotiate land claim outside Umbrella Final Agreement

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The federal Liberals have pledged 'sunny ways,' and, in Yukon, that could mean casting aside an umbrella. 

An attorney representing the federal government has said it's open to meet with the Ross River Dena Council to talk, even if the First Nation doesn't want to negotiate by Yukon's Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA).

The First Nation's position on the UFA had been a deal-breaker for the last 15 years. 

The Ross River Dena Council was in court this week asking the Yukon Supreme Court to force the federal government back to the negotiating table.

The First Nation says it doesn't want to negotiate by the UFA, even though 11 other Yukon First nations have done so as the foundation of their land claims. 

One issue that sets the Ross River Dena apart from other First Nations are trans-boundary land-claims.

The Ross River Dena, with a population of about 400 people, are one of several small Kaska nations, which together claim about 23 per cent of Yukon as traditional territory, as well as about ten per cent of B.C. and land in the Northwest Territories.

Negotiations have been stalled for 15 years

The Yukon Supreme Court is being asked to determine if the federal government has been negotiating in good faith so far.

The court heard precedents dating back to the 1870s, as attorneys produced stacks of binders a metre thick.

"Well, council, it's been a long road," said Justice Gower at the end of the five-day hearing, with a sigh.

The Ross River Dena Council and other Kaska nations have been at odds with the federal government since the concept of land claims was introduced in the 1970s. 

Negotiations most recently broke down in 2002.

​Federal gov't open to talk 

While the federal government has opened the door to new negotiations — however briefly — it still defended its previous offers this week. 

Federal attorney Suzanne Duncan said the government's previous offer in 2002 was fair.

"The offer was made in good faith, it exceeds any kind of compensation required under Canada's legal obligations. Canada shouldn't be penalized because the Ross River Dena Council didn't sign," she said. 

Nevertheless, Duncan also said the federal government would be willing to re-enter discussions regardless of the Supreme Court case's outcome.

That could include considering negotiations outside the parameters of the UFA. 

This concession caught the court by surprise, and could plant a seed for the beginning of talks to end a stalemate that has lasted 15 years.

Less than 1/20th of land recognized as traditional

This week, the Ross River Dena Council's attorney, Stephen Walsh told the court Kaska nations were there long "before there was a boundary" between provinces and territories.

He said any land claim should recognize the Kaska nations' unique status. 

The UFA by its nature would only provide for settlement land within Yukon. It would recognize about 5,000 square kilometres of settlement land, less than one twentieth what the Kaska claim as traditional territory overall. 

Both sides' representatives in court declined comment.