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Yukon aboriginals fight federal government over environmental assessment changes

WHITEHORSE - The federal government could soon be facing a second lawsuit over its plans to change environmental assessments in the North.

The Yukon Council of First Nations says a bill before Parliament would violate hard-won treaty guarantees and subject a previously independent board to political control. Court action is already being considered.

"It's one of the options we'd be looking at," said James MacDonald, the council's natural resources manager.

The council would be the second northern aboriginal group to legally challenge the Conservative government's overhaul of northern environmental legislation.

In May, the Tli Cho First Nation filed a lawsuit against Ottawa over changes to the Northwest Territory's system. The lawsuit alleges the federal government is reducing Tli Cho control over their lands won in treaty negotiations and undermines northern decision-making.

"It sounds very familiar," said MacDonald.

Currently, environmental assessments developed as part of treaty negotiations are conducted by an independent board with representatives from the federal government, the territory and the Council of Yukon First Nations. If the federal bill is passed, that board would be replaced with one led by a federally appointed chairman. It would be subject to binding political direction, which could come from either the federal or territorial government.

"Those are strictly bilateral conversations," said MacDonald. "We would be totally left out of it.

"What those policy directions are are totally unclear to us. Why they're necessary hasn't been justified."

The legislation would also limit the amount of time groups would have to request more information from a proponent, although it wouldn't limit the time companies would have to answer. It also proposes removing the requirement for a new assessment when companies change their project. That would become subject to the board's discretion.

First Nations and environmental groups say the proposed legislation's final wording was drafted in secrecy after a meeting between the government and five industry groups.

"We know the federal government has met with sectors of the mining industry. But other sectors of society, they haven't had any opportunity for provision of their input," MacDonald said.

The federal government says the bill is intended to produce more predictable and timely reviews, reduce duplication, strengthen environmental protection and provide meaningful aboriginal consultation.

"These improvements will result in further unlocking the economic potential of the North, while ensuring sound environmental stewardship and help the territories remain an attractive place in which to live, work and invest," says a government release.

Industry supports the changes, said Samson Hartland of the Yukon Chamber of Mines.

He questions whether the bill would allow political direction of the assessment process.

"I don't see that specifically in the amendment."

The bill reads: "The federal minister may, after consultation with the board, give written policy directions that are binding on the board with respect to the exercise or performance of any of its powers, duties or functions under this act."

The bill was introduced in the Senate instead of the House of Commons. It has gone through second reading in the upper house and is before a Senate committee for possible revision.

MacDonald said the council plans to appear before the committee.

— By Bob Weber in Edmonton

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