The Yukon Supreme Court said the federal government has no legal obligation to negotiate unsettled land claims in the territory.

A judge said that government promises made 140 years ago to the Ross River Dena are not legally enforceable.

The First Nation had suspended land claim negotiations 10 years ago with no agreement. Lawyers for the Dena Council have been in court ever since to try to force a deal with Ottawa.

The lawyers insisted that a 140-year-old edict should be honoured. The edict, which is the Order of 1870, made Yukon and parts of the N.W.T. part of Canada, and included orders to compensate First Nations for loss of lands.

But Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower said the Dena interpretation ignores the historical context of that order. He said enforcement was up to the discretion of Parliament and the courts have no authority to intervene.

Gower added that the court had no legal force 140 years ago and he found no evidence that has changed. He concluded that ‘when and how’ Ottawa negotiates claims is at the federal government’s discretion.

Kaska Dena lawyer Steven Walsh said he’s disappointed by the ruling and plans to discuss it with his clients. But they are expected to appeal.

Canadian historian Ken Coates said the ruling is a setback for First Nations without a treaty.

He said it shows the lengths First Nations must go to have their claims heard

"It was not a risky enterprise but a long shot. It really is an indication of the difficulty in reading history backwards. You can't go back and turn historical documents into ones that relate to contemporary period as easily as you like," he said.

The Yukon court ruling concludes that government promises made when Yukon was admitted to Canada are under the discretion of Parliament.