Yukon chiefs say Valcourt insults them over environmental concerns

First Nations in Yukon say federal Aboriginal Affairs Minister Bernard Valcourt insulted and dismissed them at a meeting to discuss their concerns that planned changes to environmental assessments in the territory give too much power to Ottawa.

“We came down here on the invitation of the minister to discuss this and he totally insulted our First Nations, he totally insulted our agreements and it’s like ‘business as usual. Too bad what you think,'” said Ruth Massie, grand chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

Massie’s remarks Wednesday came as a Northwest Territories aboriginal band appeared in court in Yellowknife to fight similar moves the Harper government has planned for that territory.

“It’s the same thing,” said Massie. “The minister wants to have delegation of authority over our environmental process.”

Assessments in Yukon, developed as part of treaty negotiations, are conducted by an independent board with representatives from the federal government, the territory and the Council of Yukon First Nations.

If a federal bill is passed, that board would be replaced with one led by a chairman appointed by Ottawa. It would be subject to binding political direction, which could come from either the federal or territorial government.

The legislation would also limit the amount of time groups would have to request more information from a proponent, although it wouldn’t limit the time companies would have to answer. It also proposes removing the requirement for a new assessment when companies change their project.

The federal government says the intention is to produce more predictable and timely reviews, reduce duplication, strengthen environmental protection and provide meaningful aboriginal consultation.

But First Nations have long opposed the amendments, which they say were drafted in secret after a meeting between the government and five industry groups.

Massie said she and her fellow chiefs hoped to make headway with Valcourt in a face-to-face meeting on Tuesday. Instead, she said, Valcourt told them he didn’t need to consult them.

“We went to actually talk to him, hoping,” said Massie. “It didn’t matter to him. ‘It’s too bad about your treaties. This is what we unilaterally have decided to do and that’s that.'”

The Yukon Chamber of Mines has said it supports the proposed amendments, but at least one miner in the territory is urging caution.

Vancouver-based Casino Mining, currently developing a copper, gold, molybdenum and silver mine north of Whitehorse, urged Valcourt to ease off.

“Casino believes that if the (assessment process) has the full support of all levels of government, it will provide greater certainty for the minerals industry,” wrote company president Paul West-Sells in a letter to the minister.

“We encourage Canada, Yukon and Yukon First Nation governments to engage, work collaboratively and find a solution to the outstanding issues with Bill S-6.”

Massie said that if the bill passes, the council will consider its legal options.

Liberal aboriginal affairs critic Carolyn Bennett said the Conservatives should start working with aboriginal governments instead of daring them to file a legal challenge.

“The bill in its present form will really destroy the economic advantage and certainty in the region,” she said. “Their present course of action isn’t working there. It’s really causing problems there and one can only hope that finally they will learn that ‘see you in court’ is not a good policy.”

A response from Valcourt’s office was not immediately available

Another northern aboriginal group that governs a New-Brunswick-sized chunk of the Northwest Territories is already asking the territory’s Supreme Court for an injunction against a similar federal law that they say violates their hard-won treaty.

The Tli Cho say the law, to take effect next April, would dilute local decision-making by replacing environmental regulators created by land-claim settlements with a single board controlled from Ottawa.

The Tli Cho Agreement, signed in 2003, created a board to oversee development on 39,000 square kilometres between Great Bear Lake and Great Slave Lake that guaranteed half its positions to local people. Similar boards were created for other land-claim groups in the N.W.T.

The new legislation replaces those local boards with a single “superboard” headed by a federal appointee. Local representation on panels considering development is reduced.

Critics have said the superboard was the price the Harper Tories exacted from the territorial government in exchange for rules transferring resource royalties to the territory, which were contained in the same bill.