First Nation says Yukon Energy isn't honouring agreement to collaborate on dam licence

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations are accusing Yukon Energy of failing to honour a 2016 agreement to work together on the relicensing of the Aishihik hydroelectric dam.

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations agreed with Yukon Energy in 2016 to work on renewal of water licence

Roger Brown, manager of environment and natural resources for CAFN, left, and CAFN deputy chief Rose Kushniruk at a press conference Monday. The CAFN says Yukon Energy is failing to honour a 2016 agreement to work together on the relicensing of the Aishihik hydroelectric dam. (Alexandra Byers/CBC)

Champagne and Aishihik First Nations (CAFN) are accusing Yukon Energy of failing to honour a 2016 agreement to work together on the relicensing of the Aishihik hydroelectric dam.

The water licence for the 37 MW facility, near Haines Junction, expires at the end of 2019.

At a press conference on Monday, Rose Kushniruk, the First Nation's deputy chief, said construction of the dam in the 1970s caused significant disruption to their traditional way of life, and left lasting impacts on fish and wildlife.

"This agreement was, we believed, to recognize past challenges our First Nations faced with Yukon Energy: the long-term impacts of the dam on our people and traditional territory," she said. "[It] would enable us to develop a joint proposal that would be acceptable to both parties."

The First Nation says the dam's impacts can be seen at the northern end of the Aishihik Lake, where low water has affected traditional fishing areas. Some rivers and creeks have also seen a lot of sediment pour in, the First Nation says. 

Two years of consultation and studies led the First Nation to conclude waters in the area should be allowed to return to natural levels.

"This agreement was, we believed, to recognize past challenges our First Nations faced with Yukon Energy.- Rose Kushniruk, CAFN deputy chief

But in September, Kushniruk says they were shocked when Yukon Energy suddenly announced it would be doing its own application, and would aim to maintain status quo operations at the facility.

She said the First Nation feels that's unacceptable.

A letter written to Yukon Energy president in October never received an official response, she said. As a result, the First Nation is making a public call for the corporation to return to the collaborative process.

"We want to get back to the table so we can conclude these kinds of conversations and come up with a solution that is both good for Champagne and Aishihik, and Yukoners," said Roger Brown, manager of environment and natural resources for CAFN.

Consensus wasn't required

Andrew Hall, the president of Yukon Energy, said he was disappointed by the First Nation's characterization of the situation.

"Our intention and hope is to still engage with them on specific topics related to the relicensing process and we were in the process of that. So we were surprised. They certainly didn't give us any advance notice that they were going to take this approach."

Yukon Energy president Andrew Hall is disappointed by how CAFN is characterizing the situation, but added there's no requirement for Yukon Energy and CAFN to reach a consensus. (CBC)

He said the 2016 agreement was to work together on the next water licence application, but there was no requirement to reach a consensus.

Hall said Yukon Energy spent millions of dollars on the joint work with the First Nation, funding studies with elders, scientists and non-profit organizations to explore the state of Aishihik Lake, and the management of the hydroelectric facility.

But in the end, Hall says Yukon Energy, and Yukoners, just can't afford to bring the lake back to "pre-dam" levels.

In the short term, it would cost $10 million a year in fossil fuels to make up the energy shortfall, he said. Long-term solutions would involve building more than $100 million in new hydro assets elsewhere.

Hall also said, from the company's perspective, the studies show the lake is healthy, and there are no urgent environmental reasons to change the operation of the Aishihik facility.