Yukon gov't: accepting Peel plan not an option at this time

Yukon's new government has submitted its arguments to a Supreme Court of Canada (SCOC) appeal by a group of Yukon First Nations and environmental groups over the Peel Watershed land use planning process — and it's largely in line with the previous government's legal position.

New Liberal government appears to pick up where Yukon Party left off in contentious case

Yukon Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee and Premier Sandy Silver present the government's argument that will be presented to the Supreme Court of Canada in March. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

Yukon's new government has submitted its written arguments to a Supreme Court of Canada (SCOC) appeal by a group of Yukon First Nations and environmental groups over the Peel Watershed land use planning process — and it's largely in line with the previous government's legal position. 

Earlier court decisions found that the Yukon government had violated land claims agreements by attempting to dramatically modify the Peel Watershed Planning Commission's final recommended plan.

Among the legal questions at issue now is how far back the contentious planning process should be dialled back. The court is also being asked for clarity around the government's ability to approve, reject or modify a land use plan at the end of the process.

The Yukon Court of Appeal decided in 2015 that the planning process should return to the point when the commission submitted its initial recommendations. Both the previous and new Yukon governments accept that decision.

At issue is how much of the vast Peel watershed region, an undeveloped area that represents about 14 per cent of Yukon, should be open to development. (CBC)

But the First Nations and environmental groups argue that's too far back, they want to start at a later stage — the final recommended plan. 

The Peel watershed plan will ultimately determine how much of the vast and pristine Peel watershed region, in northern Yukon, is open to development. The previous government wanted more of the area open than the final plan recommended.  

Implementing original plan no longer an option

During the recent election campaign, Yukon's new Liberal government promised to improve relations with Yukon First Nations, and stated in its platform that it would accept "the final report of the original Peel Land Use Planning Commission."

'We do want to implement the original plan,' says Premier Sandy Silver. (Claudiane Samson/Radio-Canada)

"We've said from the beginning that we do want to implement the original plan," said Premier Sandy Silver, at a news conference on Thursday. "If it comes down to a path where that could happen, we wouldn't say no to it."

But the Liberals say that is not an option at this time.

"It's not open to us at this point in the process to accept the final recommended plan," said Justice Minister Tracy-Anne McPhee.

McPhee said the government accepts that the SCOC should hear the latest appeal, even as the government's factum to the court says "the appeal should be dismissed."

"The clarity that will be provided by the Supreme Court of Canada in this case will allow the parties to proceed with completing the Peel land use plan, and provide direction for future land use planning processes in the territory," McPhee said.

Government flip-flop, opposition says

When asked about how her government's argument to the court differs from the previous government's position, McPhee said she couldn't comment.

"I don't know what they [the Yukon Party] were arguing, to be frank with you," she said.

Opposition justice critic Brad Cathers says the new Premier 'has now completely changed his mind' with respect to the SCOC appeal. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Yukon Party MLA Brad Cathers, the opposition's justice critic, says there is no difference, and the Liberals are simply picking up exactly where his government left off.   

"It's virtually unchanged," he said. "What's notable is that Premier Silver said the [Yukon Party] government had got it wrong in accepting the [Yukon] Court of Appeal decision, and has now completely changed his mind.

"The Liberals have flip-flopped," he said.

No surprise for CPAWS

The executive director of CPAWS, however, is not surprised by the new government's arguments and doesn't see a "flip-flop".

"I don't think it necessarily contradicts the position that they've had, leading up to now," said Chris Rider.

"The reality is, in a case like this they had to produce an argument that was essentially robust and supportive of the Yukon Court of Appeal, so the arguments that they've produced don't surprise us."

Rider says the real test for the Liberal government will be whether it ultimately fulfills its promise to protect more of the Peel region than the Yukon Party wanted.

"Once we are through the Supreme Court of Canada process, there's nothing stopping them from going through and protecting 80 per cent of the Peel watershed as they have promised and made some very strong commitments to do," he said.

The Supreme Court is scheduled to hear the case on Mar. 22.

The Peel watershed region in northern Yukon. (Juri Peepre)