Valuing democracy – playing by the rules

I was asked to contribute to the ongoing consultation process for the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan. Here are my thoughts:

Monolith Mountain in the Tombstone Territorial Park. A protected natural space in the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in traditional territory adjacent to the Peel River watershed.

Feedback Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan Consultation

My personal opinion is that the Peel River region has sufficient natural value to be designated as a whole (=100%) a protected area similar to a National Park. However, I see that various stakeholders have an interest in accessing some resources in the Peel River watershed:

For First Nations it is an area for subsistence, primarily fishing, but also hunting, berry picking and the collection of other plant materials for medicinal uses. As the representatives of a colonial power, the Yukon Government also has to realize that the Peel River watershed has spiritual values to the indigenous people of that area, the people that have lived on the land for centuries, that live on the land today, and the ones yet-to-come. This land is part of the people – a concept that is hard to grasp for us Westerners who have developed property rights, buy and sell real estate like a commodity, with no emotional or spiritual attachment, and see us as enlightened beings separate from the natural world.

Some Yukoners and visitors to the territory use this area as a temporary place for recreation. The Peel River watershed is a treasure for those who dare to go there, canoe down one of the rivers, hike up a mountainside to fetch a breathtaking view, and come back and share these witnessed moments with those who are content knowing that this area exists. I know many people in this society who find solace simply in knowing that there are pristine natural areas and habitats left on this planet. They have no compulsion or desire to go there themselves and create the slightest disturbance.

Some of the more affluent members of society will enjoy the Peel River watershed for their big game hunting. Again, this is not my cup of tea, but it is something that I can live with. Shoot the moose, share the meat, and be happy with your trophy and the pictures.

But then, there is the industrial minded in boardrooms of multinational corporations. Instead of rocks, they see minerals; instead of landscape and habitat, the industrial mind sees interests and potential resource that can be sold. The more I stake, the more I make, and the higher the speculative price for the claims the better, because it creates an aura of scarcity. Greed and affluence are the drivers, and the natural values of the Peel River watershed are an inconvenience and in the way for extracting the riches. Much of that goes on long before the first ore is taken from the ground to be processed into something that is useful for a consumerist society.

There is a whole army of people that runs along with these industrial interests. They are happy to make a dollar as worker ants, staking, drilling, dozing, trucking, rigging, fracturing… This is what the government generally refers to as economic development: Guys in the field who work as needed a few weeks or months, come into town to buy a fancy pick-up truck with the fast cash, get drunk, get laid, and then go to Vegas or Hawaii for their holidays.

And then there is the army that mines the miners: Suppliers and service companies with a storefront presence in the territory. This is also economic development: It is more stationary, but most of the money gets only collected here in the territory and then flows away into the big market place, because there is no substantial production of anything happening in the Yukon. The business owners are getting rich with the resale margins only. Consultants sell their ideas at incredible prices, and lawyers render services those who cannot agree or cheat each other. And the hype drives up property prices to the point where even affluent families occasionally have to go to the food bank because their bank obligations are eating up their income.

I am painting this picture because I have lived through several resource related cycles of boom and bust here in the Yukon. Communities outside of Whitehorse have not benefitted from these developments, less than a handful of people attracted by the mineral riches have ever come to stay (longer than a night). Local people get some auxiliary jobs, some skills training, a few dollars, and dumped when no longer needed.

None of the indicators show that more than a century of mining related activity has contributed to building a sustainable, inclusive society in the Yukon where all members feel valued, where differences are respected, and where basic needs are met so all Yukoners can live with dignity, prosper, and unfold their full potential. Unemployment rates among people of First Nations ancestry continue to be at least threefold in comparison to the rate of all Yukoners. Instead, labour shortages are filled with willing workers from around the globe. Some mining companies will bring their own workforce, bypassing the local context altogether.

Is that why we need to forgo the democratic process that has led to an acceptable compromise in a seven-year process of consultation with all the stakeholders? The Final Recommended Plan is the result of a fair planning process that respected the legal obligations of shared governance between the colonial administration in Ottawa, its satellite government in Whitehorse, and the First Nations governments of the nations affected. All stakeholders had their voice heard in the planning and consultation phases.

Who is the driver behind the closed-door amendments and changes proposed unilaterally by the territorial government? Why did the Yukon government not bring in the experts and these scenarios when it was part of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission process? Why can the Yukon government not accept that the collective wisdom of the planning process set aside eighty percent of the Peel River watershed for protection without compromising previously acquired rights for resource exploration?

Democracy is a system where the power lies with the people. Government is here to represent the people and to develop, maintain, and enforce the legal framework that facilitates a meaningful life together within its jurisdiction. Unilateral top-down action, as demonstrated by the proposed New Land Use Designations, to accommodate and suit special interests is an autocratic action that violates every principle of democracy.

These are the reasons why I don’t further consider the merits of the New Land Use Designations. I have the humility to accept the Final Recommended Plan brought forward by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission as an outcome of a fair, democratic process. However, I continue to support the idea of protecting the entire Peel River watershed as a protected area to maintain its integrity as a reminder of a natural and spiritual space in a secular world increasingly affected by globalization and consumerism.

Whitehorse, December 14, 2012

Othmar F. Arnold

PS: I am aware that my position on the Peel Watershed Land Use Plan has implications for the future. I will gladly forego the 10th generation of smart phones that might be delayed or have a limited availability at a high price due to the lack of timely mine development in the Peel River watershed… 😉

Sunset in the Nisling River Valley: sacred space of the natural world. (Photo credit: Erika Gustedt)

4 thoughts on “Valuing democracy – playing by the rules

  1. The following comment was sent by email:

    That is an amazing letter Othmar, thank you for sharing it. We will not know what happens to these submissions, what the officials who view them will do with them, but if the ministers who will be making the decisions,were to thoughtfully read letters such as yours, surely they would reconsider their position.

    Thank you, Sebastian. We always hope that speaking up would inspire those who are assigned the power to make decisions to see the Light and to act with integrity and in the best interest of all!

  2. After a lengthy discussion with Othmar about this blog entry he dared me to re-write the essay from my perspective. I had taken issue with his paragraph about miners as “Guys in the field who work as needed a few weeks or months, come into town to buy a fancy pick-up truck with the fast cash, get drunk, get laid, and then go to Vegas or Hawaii for their holidays.”

    I do not disagree that these guys exist. As the saying goes, “Some of them are my (best) friends.” I just don’t think it is helpful to criticize their lifestyle. Othmar disagrees. For him, criticism is integral to change.

    This is when I came up with the idea of “hard radicalism vs. soft radicalism”.

    Hard radicalism criticizes. It seeks “massive extra-institutional disruption [that] threatens the whole political edifice” (see Ofradix, December 8, 2012). It is absolutely necessary to provoke change.

    Alternatively, soft radicalism seeks to provoke change through a different kind of understanding. For instance, those miner guys who seem to have bought hook-line-and-sinker into our consumerist society and who may have become slaves to its trappings do not need to be criticized. What I see the need being is to regard those guys first and foremost as human individuals with unique lives and stories, which, when looked at more closely, might reveal a little more truth about the motivation behind their decision-making processes.

    So, too, do the government workers who see those guys as “economic development” need to be seen as human beings with individual human issues; as do the industrial-minded, the worker ants, the suppliers and service providers and all the men and women working in our broken institutional systems. Our systems are broken because we are broken. Soft radicalism yearns to address the brokenness in human beings first.

    Soft radicalism and hard radicalism are not on opposite sides of the fence. They are allies and they need each other. Soft radicalism needs the kind of massive disruption advocated by hard radicalism. Hard radicalism needs the kind of gentle compassion offered by soft radicalism. Perhaps together we can enhance, improve and, yes, maybe even change our “secular world increasingly affected by globalization and consumerism.”

    1. Dear Celia,

      I hope that I don’t come across with my critical point of view – by naming behaviours that are not sustainable for the future of our planet, our society, even our polity – that I do not honour every single person as a unique human being with “that of God”, a divine spark, in each and every one. I have many opportunities to interact meaningfully with people I describe in the blog post as miners or under any other categorical label.

      However, to recognize and value human beings as such, with all their individual strengths and weaknesses, does not mean to silently accept each and every human behaviour. Criticism is about pointing out things that don’t work, not about judging and condemning others. I can show deepest concern and compassion for another human being by providing honest and critical feedback.

      In my writing about the Peel River Land Use Plan, I was making a particular point about the impact mining and consumerism have on our shared natural environment, our society, and our economic well being. I phrased the same observations and concerns for a YESAB submission in a different writing style that does not use the category ‘miners’, etc.:

      1) Environmental concerns:
      I have experienced the reopening of the Faro mine (and its eventual shut down), fully regulated and monitored as an environmentally safe operation (today’s estimated clean-up cost: $100’s million, estimated duration of required monitoring to minimize the risk to people and environment: 100’s of years!).
      I have experienced the hype around BYG Mt. Nanson mine as technically sound and harmless for the environment, another unresolved environmental legacy. This mine and its infrastructure and techniques were regulated, approved, and monitored by the Yukon and federal governments. The people in Carmacks were repeatedly reassured that they do not need to be concerned because there is no environmental risk associated with it.
      I am aware of the environmental impact of the hydraulic fracturing techniques that will likely be used to search for oil and gas in the Whitehorse Though. It was presented as a harmless technique to access unconventional resources and riches, with many published examples from the US and other parts of the world. There is sufficient evidence that it is not harmless. No regulatory body can guarantee that this technique will not do immediate and longterm harm to the environment, particularly to water resources, no matter how tightly regulated, monitored, and controlled.
      I have no confidence in Yukon Government’s published reassurances that oil and gas disposition in the Yukon will have a different environmental impact and can avoid the known “issues”.

      2) Socio-economic concerns:

      So far, the Yukon Territory and Canada, as its colonial master, with all its mining and energy resources, have no proven track record that these natural resources translate into prosperity. Of course, during the colonial period, all the royalties went to the federal coffers. Since devolution, the Yukon government does not earn substantial revenue from royalties. Furthermore, the poverty situation in the territory remains unchanged: 20% of the population lives below or near the poverty line. This remains unacceptable in a modern, affluent society and state!
      Again, the companies that operated all the promising mines and energy resources in the territory in the past syphoned millions of dollars out of the territory; many of them leaving the clean-up cost of their closed or abandoned operations to the public purse.
      I have also experienced the impact that the reopening of Faro Mine and the advent of BYG Mt. Nanson had on life in Carmacks. As a member and supervisor of the local emergency services (fire and EMS), I saw a steep increase in motor vehicle accidents shortly after “the money started flowing in”. Individuals “invested” the money they were able to earn in the nearby mines in brand new vehicles (and similar status symbols): The trade and consumption of alcohol and drugs skyrocketed at the same time. The number of calls for domestic violence, other violent incidents and deaths, increased as well. At the same time, none of the housing stock improved, no new infrastructure was realized (not even the bypass road or bridge repair). The short-lived economic benefit stayed with car dealers, tow-truck drivers, repair shops, the bars, the Liquor Corporation, as well as the black market and organized crime. Life in the communities improves slowly but sustainably because of the intentional effort of individuals and groups to transform the colonial legacies, such as cultural and spiritual trauma, disenfranchisement, poverty, etc.
      As a humanitarian worker, I have witnessed and experienced many situations in the global context, where natural resource riches and related investments (exploration and extraction) have clearly worsened the inequality in regions and states: Most recently, I served in Chad, an oil producing and exporting country. However, the Kanem region, with active exploration and experimental oil production, still has no infrastructure whatsoever (transportation, utilities, power). The majority of people live with much less than $1.25 a day. I was there to alleviate a recurring malnutrition crisis: 30% of all children under 5 years old are chronically malnourished; more than 20% suffered from moderate acute malnutrition and more than 6% from severe acute malnutrition (a medical emergency with a 50% risk of death). Furthermore, the oil industry demands free access to water and leaves behind non-remediated legacies in the fragile topsoil that supports a pastoralist and subsistence farming (millet) lifestyle as the only sustainable source of livelihood and income in this part of the Sahel. The heavy equipment also makes the delicate road tracks in the desert nearly impassable for other vehicles.
      There are also severe implications for energy sales and exports under the North American free trade agreements. If there is no way to process and use the accessed energy resources locally, the Yukon and Canada will potentially loose control over and revenue potential from the resource.
      I have yet to be convinced that the proposed oil and gas exploration process in the Yukon would have a different, more positive and sustainable economic and social impact on the communities in the Yukon, now and for future generations.

      Nonetheless, it points out exactly the same things that don’t work in the long run to build a peaceful society and a sustainable future.

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