Ross River Dena Council turns to court to force gov't back to negotiating table

A Yukon First Nation says the federal government offered only 'pennies per acre' during discussions in 2002. It says it refused the offer, and negotiations have now been stalled for 15 years.

First Nation wants Yukon Supreme Court to intervene as self-government talks stalled 15 years

The Ross River Dena Council was offered what attorney Stephen Walsh calls a 'take-it-or-leave-it' offer in 2002. The First Nation declined the offer and negotiations have been stalled ever since. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Ross River Dena Council is asking the Yukon Supreme Court to force the federal government back to the negotiating table. 

The First Nation and the federal government have been stalled for years in discussing a land claim.

Eleven of Yukon's 14 First Nations currently have such agreements, which set boundaries and give them political and legal authority over land as well as the right to 'draw down' responsibilities for self-government.

Attorney Stephen Walsh, representing the Ross River Dena Council, says the federal government made a "take it or leave it" offer in 2002. 

  The First Nation declined and negotiations have been stalled ever since.

"There is an unfortunate lack of willingness on the part of Canada to resume negotiations in the 15 years since negotiations ended," Walsh told the court this week. 

  Walsh said the Ross River Dena Council is suffering economically, as it currently has neither the benefits of a settled land claim nor the benefits of a non-self governing First Nation, such as reserve land. 

The First Nation's long and complex process of discussing self-government began in 1973.

Offer 'pennies per acre of traditional land'

One issue that has continually separated the two sides is compensation.

The federal government provides money to First Nations who sign land claims, as the allocated settlement lands are most often smaller than First Nations' traditionally-claimed land.

In the case of the Ross River Dena Council, the federal offer for financial compensation under the terms of Yukon's Umbrella Final Agreement would be $14,347,330, adjusted for inflation from 1989.

Walsh told the court this was not "generous" and said it accounts to a "net surrender" of traditional land for what he claimed to be less than 50 cents an acre. 

  "This is a net surrender they're asked to make," Walsh said in court. "This is pennies per acre of traditional land."

The Ross River Dena Council is part of the Kaska Dena Council, a group of five different Kaska First Nations. 

  Together, the Kaska claim traditional rights over about 23 per cent of Yukon and about 10 per cent of British Columbia, as well as land in the N.W.T.

Walsh described the Yukon area as 27 million acres, or more than 100,000 square kilometres.

Umbrella Final Agreement not legal, argues lawyer

The federal government has said it must abide by the terms of the Umbrella Final Agreement, which sets rates for compensation.

The document also sets boundaries between different First Nations and their often-overlapping claims to land.

One controversial part of the case is that the Ross River Dena Council argue Yukon's Umbrella Final Agreement is not a valid legal document. Their argument is procedural as they argue it was never properly signed. 

  The document is supported by the Council of Yukon First Nations, whose 11 members have negotiated land claims based on the Umbrella Final Agreement. The document is also supported by the territorial and federal governments. 

Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower is hearing the case — being asked to determine if the federal government has met its constitutional obligations towards the Ross River Dena Council, and whether it has proceeded with honour, he said.

"I'm trying to determine if the negotiations were in good faith," he said.

  The case is set to continue for three days next week.