A federal government bill that proposes changes to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act was tabled in the Senate last week, but few northerners who were consulted about the bill are in a position to talk about it.

Ottawa has insisted on secrecy throughout its northern consultation process.

“We were given an absolute secrecy,” says Ken McKinnon, acting chair of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. “We had to sign off for each numbered amendment to the act personally and then return them and be crossed off the list.

“I don't particularly like secret meetings but when they are secret and private then I respect the secrecy and the privacy of the meeting.”

Bill S-6, the Yukon and Nunavut Regulatory Improvement Act, got first reading in the Senate on June 3.  

One proposed change says the minister of Aboriginal Affairs would have the power to set binding policy for the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board. Other changes include setting new timelines for conducting environmental reviews and giving the government the power to charge project developers the cost of reviewing projects.

The bill would also give the Yukon government the power to decide if changes to ongoing projects need to be assessed.

‘Yukoners never saw any of this’

In drafting the bill, the federal government consulted business and mining groups in Yukon, and met a legal responsibility to consult First Nations, but the Yukon Conservation Society says Ottawa failed in its duty to Yukoners.

The society’s director, Karen Baltgailis, says changes to important environmental legislation affect all Yukoners and should not be done in secret.

“The public never saw any of this until now that it is in the Senate.”

McKinnon, YESAB’s acting chair, admits he does hope there will be some amendments to the bill, but says he can’t talk about the amendments unless he's invited to attend the Senate hearings.

“As I understand it the Senate is taking the lead on the act there will be hearings and we may be invited to attend those senate hearings and then of course we'll be able to make our views public.”

Stephen Mills recently resigned as chair of the YESAB, one year into his second three-year term. He says it was a personal decision, and not related to the proposed changes to the Act. 

Bill S-6 will also amend the Nunavut Waters and Nunavut Surface Rights Tribunal Act.

The bill’s goal, the government says in a news release, is to “enhance, improve, and modernize Northern regulatory regimes and ensure consistency with other regulatory regimes across the North and in the rest of Canada.”

CBC Yukon is expecting to speak to the Yukon Chamber of Mines and the Council of Yukon First Nations today.