AFN blasts Yukon, federal gov'ts for allowing salmon 'habitat destruction'

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is slamming the federal and Yukon governments over their management of Yukon River salmon, which the national advocacy organization says are hurtling toward extinction.

"The Government of Yukon is one of the principal actors in the authorization of habitat destruction or modification," states a recent missive from AFN to a federal committee, about salmon in the watershed.

"The AFN recommends seeking to better understand key threats to freshwater habitat, such as habitat destruction associated with placer mining and other development projects, and linking those threats to the regulations and policies that permit threats to continue.

"As such, the Government of Yukon is an essential partner in rebuilding these stocks and restoring their habitats."

For months the standing committee on fisheries and oceans — which is made up of MPs, including Yukon MP Brendan Hanley, who pushed for the committee to examine the issue — has been hearing testimony from witnesses including chiefs, biologists and fish harvesters. Some have submitted position papers, just like the AFN.

"Without salmon, Yukon First Nations are experiencing poverties [sic] of culture and spirit," reads the AFN's paper, which says chinook and chum salmon are facing twinning emergencies.

"[First Nations] are mourning the loss of their heritage and the loss of intergenerational teachings."

The AFN has similar words for Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), and calls on Ottawa to avoid signing off on development in known salmon habitat.

Other recommendations from AFN include looking at threats in the marine environment, where salmon spend part of their life-cycle, and finding ways to mitigate those. The AFN is also urging the minister of DFO and the prime minister to launch a federal inquiry into the precipitous decline of Canadian-origin chinook, in concert with Yukon First Nations.

The AFN's national chief wasn't available for an interview. The organization's Yukon office didn't respond to multiple requests for comment.

Yukon environment minister pressed by MPs

Yukon Environment Minister Nils Clarke recently testified during a meeting of the parliamentary committee, which urged him to respond to flak from salmon experts that the territorial government is failing the species.

Earlier this year, the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee accused the Yukon government of absolving itself of responsibility for salmon and deflecting to Ottawa; and said the territory has taken little action to protect salmon through things like more stringent mining regulations.

The former chair of the Yukon Salmon Sub-Committee recently told CBC that while the federal government oversees habitat in riparian zones — which can include streams, rivers, and wetlands — it's the Yukon government that has jurisdiction over territorial land, including what's upslope from where the fish spawn.

On this, committee member Lisa Marie Barron, an NDP MP from B.C., pressed Clarke who largely dodged the question.

"I have no intention of continuing to just say that the federal government is the only responsible party, but they are the senior level of government and they do have that responsibility," Clarke told the committee.

Yukon highways and public works minister Nils Clarke speaks at a press conference at the Council of Yukon First Nations office in Whitehorse on Oct. 4, 2021.
Yukon Environment Minister Nils Clarke at a news conference in 2021. (Jackie Hong/CBC )

A Yukon cabinet spokesperson said in an email the territory is committed to restoring salmon.

"We recognize the importance of engaging with affected Yukon First Nations on every mining and mineral exploration application and we take potential impacts to salmon seriously," Laura Seeley said.

"We will continue to work with partners to understand and mitigate the impacts of development projects, including placer mining, on freshwater habitats. We are dedicated to implementing regulations and policies that support the restoration and rebuilding of salmon stocks."

Clarke was the committee's final witness last week. Now the committee will prepare a report for the House of Commons based on what it's heard.

Hanley told CBC News the standing committee review of salmon is intended to build on the seven-year chinook fishing moratorium, signed by the federal government and State of Alaska this spring.

"We have an opportunity — it's critical now — to do something, to get that bi-national cooperation and rebuild stocks.

"I'm hoping the AFN brief, the other recommendations, testimony — ultimately the report and recommendations — are just going to help us move that needle further."