Victory for the peel


No doubt you have heard the news: we did it. We won our Supreme Court case. On Friday, December 1st, in a unanimous decision, the highest court in Canada ruled in favour of the three First Nations and two conservation groups: Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, the First Nation of Na Cho Nyäk Dän, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, as well us, CPAWS Yukon, and the Yukon Conservation Society.

This means the integrity of modern Yukon treaties have been upheld and we are now closer than ever to protecting the incredible Peel Watershed.

It is a massive win for Yukon First Nations, democracy and the environment. How many tracts of wilderness of this enormity are left on earth? The impact from the Supreme Court win cannot be understated. For the health of our global ecosystem, for the relationship between Yukon First Nations and the territorial government and for modern treaties that will be interpreted across the North for decades to come – this is truly a historic moment in our country.

The big day

It was a powerful day across the North as news of the victory came through. Whitehorse, Dawson, Mayo and Fort Macpherson all hosted livestreams of the press conference that we held in Ottawa. There was a joyous, emotional charge to the rooms as Chief Roberta Joseph, Chief Simon Mervyn, Chief Bruce Charlie, Christina Macdonald of the Yukon Conservation Society, and our Executive Director, Chris Rider, took stage and spoke about what the Peel means to them, and why we have been fighting so hard to protect it. Chris said the ruling culminates 20 years of work for many people and a vision where his future grandchildren will be able to hike, camp and paddle in wild places.

“I want them to be able to live in a world where bears, caribou, wolves and lynx exist in wild spaces, not just in zoos,” he said.

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief, Roberta Joseph, spoke about what was at stake, and why the land was so important to the Peel First Nations.

“This region is almost a pristine region,” she said. “It has beautifully, clear sparkling rivers, where we can drink the water from….one of our elders always says, this is our university, and our hospital.”

You can watch the entire press conferenceThomas Berger’s response to the decision, and read coverage of Friday’s win here.

We will be celebrating this victory for a long time, and giving thanks to everyone who has united over the past decades to fight for ecological integrity and First Nations rights.

We will be hosting a party in Whitehorse at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on February 2nd, 2018. It’s time to come together, tell our stories, and celebrate this incredible victory for the Peel. We hope to see you all there. Stay tuned for more details!

What does the ruling mean for the Peel?

Now that the judgement is out, the big question is: what exactly does it mean for the Peel? And what does it mean for the future of land use planning in the Yukon?

The Peel should now be protected. The Supreme Court of Canada sided with Justice Vale’s 2014 ruling, sending the planning process back to final consultations on the Final Recommended Plan, which protects 80 per cent of the watershed.

“The Court of Appeal improperly inserted itself into the heart of the ongoing treaty relationship between Yukon and the First Nations,” the Court wrote, referring to the 2015 Court of Appeal ruling which allowed the Yukon government to go back to a much earlier stage in planning for the Peel, essentially offering the party that breached treaty obligations a “do-over”.

As we return to final consultations on the plan, the language of the decision severely limits Yukon government’s ability to make any changes. On top of this, in a press conference on the day of the decision, Yukon Premier Sandy Silver called it a “victory for the Yukon”, showing his commitment to implementing the Final Recommended Plan, as he promised several times during the election campaign and consistently during his time as premier.

“I believe that when people look back at this moment, they will see this as the beginning of a new era for Yukon, one based on reconciliation,” he said.

We can’t say how long it will take to implement the Final Recommended Plan, and the fight is still not over, but we are in a better place than ever when it comes to protecting this incredible tract of northern wilderness. It’s clear there is unity — a shared desire to get this plan implemented — between the government, First Nations and the Yukon public.

What does the ruling mean for land use planning in the future?

The language in the Supreme Court decision gives the Yukon government guidance going forward, and ensures there are safeguards in place to limit its ability to modify or reject a plan at the final stage of the process.

The judgement emphasized the importance of the Final Agreements, that they are not just contracts subject to the goals of the Yukon government, but constitutional rights that must always be respected.

Modern treaties, the decision read, will not accomplish the “purpose of fostering positive, long-term relationships between Indigenous peoples and the Crown” if they are interpreted “in an ungenerous manner or as if it were an everyday commercial contract”.

This means the Yukon government is bound to interpreting the Final Agreements in an honourable, respectful and generous manner, with the goal of advancing reconciliation. The court also stressed the importance of deep consultation with meaningful dialogue, that both Yukon government and the First Nations participate in the land use planning process in good faith, and that the process builds on decision made in earlier stages.