Yukon Supreme Court sides with federal gov't against Ross River Dena Council

The Supreme Court of Yukon has found the Crown has behaved well during negotiations and is not to blame for First Nation's failure to settle a land claim.

Federal gov't 'honourable' in insisting on Umbrella Final Agreement, says Yukon Supreme Court

'It is consistent with the honour of the Crown for Canada to insist upon the Umbrella Final Agreement,' reads the decision from Yukon Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

The Supreme Court of Yukon has ruled against the Ross River Dena Council (RRDC) in a decision that defends the federal government.  

Land claim negotiations between the two governments have been stalled for 15 years. 

In April, attorney Stephen Walsh, representing the Dena Council, said the federal government was solely to blame for the stall.

Walsh told the court the federal government made a "take it or leave it" offer in 2002, which the First Nation declined.

The First Nation argued the federal government had behaved dishonourably in not making a new offer since that time.

Supreme Court Justice Leigh Gower's ruling disagrees. 

"Canada has acted reasonably and fairly in the context of negotiations," it reads.

It also says the First Nation shares the blame in letting those negotiations end. 

"Canada's conduct with respect to negotiating a Final Agreement with RRDC is consistent with the honour of the Crown," reads a media summary prepared by the Supreme Court of Yukon.  

"The Court finds that despite substantial efforts made by Canada and RRDC to conclude an agreement, the decision to stop negotiating in 2002 was mutual." 

Gov't 'honourable' in insisting on Umbrella Final Agreement 

One controversial element of the case is that the Dena Council wants to negotiate a land claim on its own terms. 

So far, 11 Yukon land claims have been negotiated by the terms of the Umbrella Final Agreement, a document reached after decades of negotiations.

The RRDC has argued for unprecedented political rights and compensation beyond what the Umbrella Final Agreement would allow. 

A recent letter from the Kaska Dena Council, a group that includes the Ross River Dena Council, asked the federal government for the largest land claim payout in Canadian history: $1.5 billion.

In the recent Supreme Court case, the Dena Council also argued the Umbrella Final Agreement is not legal for technical reasons involving the timing of documents being signed. 

The Supreme Court decision dismisses this notion entirely.

It also defends the federal government's insistence to negotiate within the terms of the Umbrella Final Agreement.  

"It is consistent with the honour of the Crown for Canada to insist upon the Umbrella Final Agreement as the only basis on which it will negotiate RRDC's claims to traditional territory. This is so because RRDC was involved in the negotiations leading up to the adoption of the UFA as the template for Yukon First Nations' final Agreements primarily through the Council for Yukon First Nations and its predecessor the Yukon Native Brotherhood," reads the Supreme Court's media summary.  

RRDC is one of three Yukon First Nations without a land claim agreement, alongside the White River First Nation and Liard First Nation. 

Together, the Kaska nations claim that about 23 per cent of Yukon is their traditional territory. 

During the court case, an attorney representing the federal government said it would be open to meet with the Ross River Dena Council to talk, even if the First Nation doesn't want to negotiate by Yukon's Umbrella Final Agreement.

It's not clear if the federal government's offer still stands after this decision.