Good morning, Mr. Chair and fellow committee members.
I thank you for the opportunity to speak to the committee this morning. The Champagne and Aishihik First Nations fully support all statements made by the Council of Yukon First Nations and other first nations partners at the table today.
I'd like to open by telling you that my father was Elijah Smith. It was he who, some 43 years ago, presented the original Yukon land claim to then prime minister Pierre Trudeau. He was the driving force behind the negotiation of our land claim and self-government agreements. He served for six years in World War II. It was that experience which taught him that confrontation is always the last resort, and that negotiation and compromise have to be the preferred methods to settle grievances. This is the sentiment that Yukon first nations have always held when reconciling our claims. This ideal is something that we hope Canada and Yukon would subscribe to as well, not always having to settle disagreements in court.
Bill S-6 is a roadblock to reconciliation. The unconstitutional bill demonstrates the federal government's unilateralism and lack of understanding of the relationships that arise from the final agreements, the federal government's failure to abide by the collaborative development assessment regime mandated by the final agreements, and the federal government's indifference to fostering productive and collaborative treaty relations with Yukon first nations. This is fundamentally unacceptable.
Our final agreements entailed a promise. They are modern treaties protected by section 35 of the Constitution. They are vehicles of reconciliation between first nations and Canada. The final agreements look backward to address historic grievances, and they also look forward to the future, towards evermore cooperative and collaborative relationships between Yukon first nations, Yukon, and Canada.
The final agreements represent a significant compromise, and they create a new constitutional arrangement in Yukon. Yukon first nations abandoned their claim to aboriginal title over 90% of their traditional territories, an area of almost 484,000 square kilometres roughly the size of Spain, in exchange for the commitments made in the final agreements. That was an enormous compromise.
The establishment of an independent development assessment regime created through negotiation and collaboration between first nations, Yukon, and Canada was one of the treaty commitments in the final agreements. YESAA was the means by which that commitment was fulfilled. YESAA is mandated by, and founded in, the final agreements. It is not an ordinary piece of federal legislation. It emerged from the constitutional compromise that underpins our final agreements
The final agreements required first nations, Yukon, and Canada to negotiate guidelines for drafting YESAA. We did so. We drafted the legislation and regulations together. Establishing YESAA was a success and a demonstration of the cooperation and reconciliation that our agreements demand.
YESAA is a made-in-Yukon law designed to meet the needs of Yukon first nations and Yukoners alike. It is unlike other assessment legislation in Canada because it is guided specifically by treaty obligations.
The federal government had an obligation to enact YESAA, but the federal government does not own YESAA. YESAA is not legislation that Canada may simply alter as it wishes. The federal government cannot unilaterally modify YESAA for its own benefit, or to suit its own preferences.
As we have said, we do not oppose all of the provisions of Bill S-6, but we oppose it unless the unilateral federal amendments to YESAA that undermine the spirit and intent of the final agreements are removed. The details of the changes we expect were identified in Chief Massie's opening remarks today and in our written submission.
By empowering itself to issue binding policy directions to the board, Canada would overturn the careful balance struck during the treaty negotiations and the subsequent constitutionally mandated negotiation of YESAA. By appropriating powers that imperil the board's independence, Canada imperils reconciliation.
In the final agreements, the parties agreed on the constitutionally protected framework for the creation of development assessment legislation in Yukon. Such legislation is to be drafted based on guidelines negotiated by parties, or failing agreement on guidelines, following consultations with first nations. Canada has failed to do that.
In short, Bill S-6 demonstrates Canada's disregard for its treaty commitments.
For development in Yukon to be successful, it must be sustainable. It must have social licence. It must have Yukon first nations' and Yukoners' support.
The final agreements and YESAA are designed to ensure sustainable development by, among other things, ensuring trust in the assessment process that leads to development. First nations trust the YESAA regime because they are co-creators and because they have the confidence that the assessment process is independent. By unilaterally amending YESAA in violation of its treaty commitments, Canada undermines first nations' trust in the YESAA process. This will undermine the promise of the agreements and threaten the ability of first nations to support development in our traditional territories.
Recent court decisions, such as the Peel land use planning case in the Yukon Supreme Court, the Tlicho injunction over changes to the land and water boards in the Northwest Territories earlier this year, and the Mikisew Cree case on the federal omnibus bills C-38 and C-45 demonstrate what happens when our treaties are threatened. That serves no one's interest.
In conclusion, the final agreements will never fulfill their purpose of reconciliation if the federal government persists on its path of unilateralism and disregard for the views of its treaty partners. Our treaty is as much about building relationships as it is about the settlement of past grievances. When Canada unilaterally undertakes major changes to treaty-mandated legislation without collaborating or even truly consulting with first nations, it inflames grievances and strains relations.
By going it alone, Canada has left the honour of the crown behind.
I would like to thank the committee members for their time today.