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Competing claims, uncertain sovereignties: Resource conflict and evolving tripartite federalism in Yukon Territory, Canada

Cohn, Steven Mitchell





The 1993 Yukon Land Claims Treaty presumes new types of cooperative arrangements between First Nation, Territorial, and Federal governments to address pervasive problems of aboriginal inequity. The explicit focus is the development of First Nation sovereignty, authority, and economic self-sufficiency within Canadian federalism. These arrangements have developed in a few situations but the overall pattern is towards diminished intergovernmental cooperation, undermining the extent to which treaties are actually achieving the presumed intentions. Why is this so? The reasons arise in the comprehensive forces within and upon the Canadian federation. Opportunities for First Nation self-determination formed at a time of rising Territorial provincial aspirations and national insecurities. Needs of other actors at national, regional, and local scales converged in the First Nation settlement and related issues of sovereignty and development. Actual implementation reflects the proportion of the purposeful intent, leaving untouched and perhaps strengthening existing structures of Federal territorial control. The analysis addresses historical development of structural patterns; interaction between local and external forces, institutions, and organizational divisions; and, institutional arrangements that arise to balance diverse interests in an unstable policy environment. Narrowly construed trilateral relationships of sovereignty and development between federal, provincial, and U.S./market actors overwhelm Aboriginal interest. Federal weakness contributes to bureaucratic autonomy, entrenching bilateral, relationships of unequal power that historically subordinate First Nations. Pervasive patterns of internal fragmentation that shape the actions of governments dampen intergovernmental relations. Conflict emerges at the margin between overlapping sovereignties. The new First Nation map formalizes these boundaries, prescribing the spatial arena where these conflicts are displayed and actualized. Despite these structural impediments, First Nation, Territorial and Federal governments are evolving tripartite federalist institutions to soften the impact and broaden the range of devolution measures. Diverse and incremental forums increase exchange between actors, build a collective governance capacity, and foster resilience to destabilizing external forces. Small initiatives begin to blanket the Yukon landscape with more complex forms of interdependence, raising the cost of unilateral instinctual/territorial action and creating an incentive for mutually-reinforcing governance. Collective strength contributes to the development of Canadian federalism as a whole.

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