07/09/2014 06:57 EDT | Updated 09/08/2014 05:59 EDT

Lawyer for First Nation in Northwest Territories attacks Yukon's watershed plan

WHITEHORSE - The recommended land-use plan that would protect most of the Peel River watershed from development should be legally binding, says a lawyer for a First Nation that has intervener status in a lawsuit against the Yukon government.

Jeff Langlois told Yukon Supreme Court that the plan to shield 80 per cent of the resource-rich region fulfils the aims of meaningful dialogue and reconciliation inherent in that territory's land-claim agreements.

Langlois, who represents the Gwich'in Tribal Council, suggested the Yukon government discarded the proposal of an independent commission that called for the bulk of the watershed to be preserved.

Two First Nations and a pair of environmental groups from the Yukon are suing the government over its adopted plan.

The council, which is based in the Northwest Territories and has been granted intervener status in the case, represents First Nations communities that have traditional territory in the northeast portion of the Peel watershed.

In January, the Yukon government adopted a plan to protect only 29 per cent of the watershed area, opening most of the Peel's mountains and plateaus to resource extraction and industrial roads.

Langlois said a comprehensive agreement for land claims in the Yukon does not say the government can do what it pleases with the commission's recommendations.

"This requirement for dialogue seems pointless if the Yukon government retains total discretion," he said.

"In general, reconciliation is fostered by a long-term, positive relationship between First Nations and the Crown."

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 the court to strike down that plan and replace it with one recommended by the commission.

Langlois said the government had a duty to consult First Nations over land use, even if that provision isn't specifically spelled out in the land-claim agreement or modern aboriginal treaty.

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

"We certainly agree that reconciliation is the long-term goal and the short-term goal of these processes," he said outside court.

"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 the government would not discourage First Nations from entering into future land-claim agreements, which lie 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.

Thomas Berger, lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the government was limited to modifications it proposed during the seven-year planning process and could not go "on a frolic" in carrying out widely different provisions for the region.

"You've come too late to the party," he said about the changes. (Whitehorse Star)