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Bill S-6 to face final vote in House Monday evening

Legislation that amends the Yukon's Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act is expected to be passed in a final vote tonight in Ottawa. Yukon First Nations have threatened a lawsuit if the bill passes, saying it undermines their Umbrella Final Agreement.

Controversial bill has faced dissent from First Nations and industry, gov't set to vote on it Monday night

Bernard Valcourt, Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development, says Bill S-6 is 'about securing investment,' but Yukon First Nations say it undermines their Umbrella Final Agreement. (The Canadian Press)

Bill S-6 is about to become federal law.

The Yukon and Nunavut Regulatory Improvement Act amends Yukon's Environmental and Socio-Economic Assessment Act.

And it's no stretch to say it's easily the most unpopular federal bill to be considered in the territory.

The rumblings started last June, when Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations, Ruth Massie, said S-6 essentially gutted Yukon's environmental law - and turns the clock back on four decades of land-claims progress.

The main sticking point for First Nations is four amendments, added after the review period.

They are: 

  • delegation of federal powers to Yukon government;
  • policy direction to the YESAA  board;
  • timelines for assessments; and  
  • exemptions from renewals and amendments
Ruth Massie, grand chief of the Yukon Council of First Nations, says Ottawa is turning back the clock on 40 years of land claim progress. The group has threatened a lawsuit if the bill passes.
Yukon First Nations say these amendments undermine their Umbrella Final Agreement with the federal and territorial governments. The government has said the amendments are necessary to attract business to the territory.

Massie threatened then — a full year ago — to seek redress in the courts if Bill S-6 becomes law.

And First Nations have not swayed from that stance in the ensuing 12 months.

Final vote today

Third reading debate took place on Friday, under a time allocation motion, passed by the Conservative MPs.

It's scheduled for a vote this evening in Ottawa, and then it must be proclaimed by the Governor General before it becomes actual law.

Yukon MP Ryan Leef was not in the chamber for a vote on second reading. However, he has stated that he supports the bill and would have voted 'yes,' had he been in the house.

Minister inflames already tense situation

Yukon MP Ryan Leef speaks with a member of the public at the Bill S-6 standing committee hearing in Whitehorse. Leef says he supports the bill. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)
Yukon First Nations have been vociferously opposed to the bill. In particular, they oppose four amendments that were added to the bill, at the insistence of the Yukon government.

Aboriginal Affairs minister Bernard Valcourt made that clear during the fall sitting of the House of Commons.

A delegation of Yukon chiefs went to Ottawa then to lobby against Bill S-6.

During a meeting with Valcourt, he told the coalition they were "not real governments... under the Umbrella Final Agreement."

That assessment infuriated the chiefs, who said it was an insult.

Little Salmon Carmacks chief Eric Fairclough warned the Harper government that a lack of consultation on Bill S-6 will lead to a court challenge, with "more uncertainty, more mistrust, and more confronation… the only certainty is that Bill S-6 will end up in court."

Valcourt's comment prompted Yukon premier Darrell Pasloski to an unusual move: he issued a statement, saying Yukon First Nations are governments, and asking Valcourt to "correct the record."

Industry nervous, speaks out

The mining industry, which typically flies well below the radar when it comes to standoffs between First Nations and other levels of government, has been vocal and on-the-record when it comes to Bill S-6.

The president of Casino Mining Corporation, Paul West-Sells, started the flurry of pleas to Ottawa when he sent a letter last fall to Valcourt, asking him to recognize the industry's concerns and "the fragility of intergovernmental relations in the Yukon surrounding Bill S-6 ands the negative impact this is having on the territory's mineral industry."

Golden Predator and Kaminak Gold have each added their voices, with the CEO of Kaminak, Eira Thomas, asking the federal government to "achieve a resolution." Rick Rule of Sprott Assessment Management — which funds mining projects — said simply: "If you want my money, don't ask me to fund a dispute."

Parliamentary committee hears concerns in Whitehorse

The standing committee on aboriginal affairs and northern development travelled to Whitehorse at the end of March, to hear directly from Yukoners on the proposed legislation.

Parliamentary hearings on Bill S-6 were home to a packed house, as government leaders, industry, and First Nations met to discuss the proposed legislation. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)
Chief after chief told the committee that the amendments erode the foundation of the Umbrella Final Agreement and thus all subsequent final treaties with individual First Nations.

They said they cannot live with the four amendments — which includes the ability of the federal minister to transfer binding authority to a territorial counterpart — and say they have no option but to defend their land claims agreements in court.

Grand Chief Ruth Massie told a town hall a few days before the committee hearing that "we will not back down from the integrity of our agreements. We fought too long and too hard — and we gave up a lot."

Yukon premier Darrell Pasloksi has not wavered in his defence of Bill S-6, telling opposition NDP and Liberals here they are "wrong" about the legislation, and sticking to his message track: "consistency will ensure a greater opportunity to attract business and investment that will create jobs for Yukoners."

Clock ticking towards midnight

Bill S-6 will pass without amendments suggested by opposition MPs. That means, after the vote later today, and once it is proclaimed into law, the clock has struck midnight — and all bets are off.

Investors and mining companies will be watching closely to see the reaction from Yukon First Nations leaders.

That response could include seeking a court injunction on application of the new law, as well as a lawsuit bearing the signatures of the majority of Yukon First Nations.

If that happens, the ensuing paralysis on Yukon resource development would make the Peel lawsuit look like small potatoes.

About the Author

Raised in Ross River, Yukon, Nancy Thomson is a graduate of Ryerson University's journalism program. Her first job with CBC Yukon was in 1980, when she spun vinyl on Saturday afternoons. She rejoined CBC Yukon in 1993, and focuses on First Nations issues and politics. You can reach her at nancy.thomson@cbc.ca.

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