'We assert our title' says Liard First Nation chief at economic development conference

Mining might well be “the greatest chance of building something,” when it comes to economic development in Kaska territory, says chief George Morgan.

Chief cites court precedents, says First Nation is owed bigger share of mining revenue

Liard First nation chief George Morgan, speaking at an economic development conference in Watson Lake on Wednesday, said his First Nation is open to mining on its traditional territory but said agreements will need to provide more to the First Nation. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Mining might well be "the greatest chance of building something," when it comes to economic development in Kaska territory, says the chief of the Liard First Nation. 

However, George Morgan says agreements with mining companies need to significantly change. Morgan was speaking Wednesday at an economic development conference in Watson Lake, in what he called unceded Kaska territory.

The conference delegates represent First Nations, municipalities and the territorial government. 

"We understand there may be hundreds of billions of dollars of minerals in Kaska traditional territory. There's enough to keep us all busy for the next 200 years. But only if we work out mutually beneficial agreements," Morgan told the conference.

Delegates at the conference in Watson Lake are representing First Nations, municipalities, and the territorial government. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

Morgan said different Kaska nations consider about 380,000 square kilometres to be their total traditional territory, spanning the B.C./Yukon border. The entirety of Yukon, for comparison, is about 480,000 square kilometres. 

The Liard First Nation has never signed a land claim agreement. 

Morgan said the First Nation is open to mining on its traditional territory but said agreements will need to provide more to the First Nation. 

"We are tired of agreements that do not give us a royalty share and only provide low-level contract opportunities and jobs. Our members want skilled jobs and, I dare say, apprenticeships," Morgan told the conference delegates. 

Morgan said his comments come as "Canada's legal landscape has changed," giving new power and recognition to First Nations.

He cited the landmark 2014 decision of the Supreme Court of Canada, which established Aboriginal land title for B.C.'s Tsilhqot'in First Nation.

"Canadian courts are now recognizing that Aboriginal title includes the minerals in the ground," Morgan said.  
"As Kaska, we assert our title throughout our territory."

Faro cleanup a cautionary tale

Morgan mentioned the Faro mine cleanup as a cautionary tale, saying the First Nation wants to ensure "nothing like that happens on Kaska territory ever again." 

The Faro mine site is one of Canada's largest contaminated sites. It was abandoned in 1998 and the burden of cleaning it up has fallen to taxpayers. (Yukon Conservation Society)

The Faro lead-zinc mine was abandoned by its bankrupt owners in 1998. They left behind a mess that was estimated in 2009 to cost about $500 million to clean up. 

However, Morgan said the First Nation is opening to mining given the right conditions. 

"We are fortunate to be endowed with natural resources in the territory. We recognized that mining may be our greatest chance of building something for future generations," he said.

"As we have done for centuries, we are committed to negotiating respectful, mutually-beneficial agreements with those who visit our territory and want to share in its wealth." 

The conference in Watson Lake comes amid a revival in mining in the area.

"We have been seeing that investment," said Cam Lockwood of the Town of Watson Lake. He says there's been an increase in local exploration, expediting transportation, and local contracts.

The Liard First Nation office. The First Nation was put under third party management in 2014 after falling into debt. (CBC)

First Nation's flaws acknowledged

Morgan acknowledged the Liard First Nation has not been a good business partner at times in the past. 

Four years ago, under the former chief, the First Nation was put into third-party management after failing to repay vendors and other businesses around Watson Lake and falling into debt.

"In the past we have not been a good partner to industry because of a lack of good governance," Morgan said. 
He vowed that will change. 

"We are now committed to practicing good governance and creating an environment where industry can work with the Kaska for mutually-beneficial agreements," he said.