Yukoners gather as Peel enters national spotlight
Over 130 Peel supporters came together in Whitehorse last week to hear the latest on the Peel Watershed legal case. The event followed the Supreme Court of Canada’s announcement that the application for leave to appeal filed by CPAWS Yukon and its partners had been granted and that the case will be heard in Ottawa in 2017.
CPAWS Yukon’s Executive Director, Chris Rider, and David Neufeld from the Board of Directors of the Yukon Conservation Society joined the chiefs of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation on stage at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, while esteemed Aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger participated via Skype. The event was organized to mark the latest milestone in the decades long journey to protect the Peel watershed from being largely opened up to industrial exploitation. Our appeal is based on the Yukon Government’s outright rejection – at the eleventh hour – of the Final Recommended Plan in 2014, in favour of its own back-door plan to open up 71% of the Peel to mining and oil and gas activity, despite the overwhelming opposition of the First Nations and Yukoners who had participated in the seven-year consultation process.
Speaking live from Vancouver, Berger said: “We will ask the Supreme Court of Canada to reinstate Justice Veale’s judgment. We think it was the right approach,” referring to the 2014 Yukon Supreme Court decision that would prevent the government from reducing the level of protection identified in the Final Recommended Plan. Mr. Berger did not understate the importance of the upcoming Supreme Court of Canada decision. “It will determine the course of land use planning in the Yukon over the next 50 years,” he remarked.
The First Nations chiefs and representatives from the conservation groups each spoke passionately about the significance of the case being heard by the country’s highest court, while photos of significant moments in the campaign’s history streamed in the background, including the elders gathering and the water ceremony.
Chris Rider reminded the audience that in its submission, the Yukon Government urged the Supreme Court of Canada not to hear the case because, in its words, “this is not an issue of public or national importance.” The court’s decision to hear the appeal means that they – like us – obviously disagree.
David Neufeld, Secretary on the Board of Directors of the Yukon Conservation Society, commented on the connection between the ecological importance of the Peel and respect for First Nations rights. “The government’s refusal to accept the [final recommended] plan not only undermines the pristine natural value of the Peel country, but also threatens the cultural compact between First Nations and newcomers that makes our territory such a special place to live,” he said.
The First Nations chiefs reflected on how this case goes to the very heart of the final agreements they spent decades negotiating with the government.
The newly elected chief of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Bruce Charlie, said: “We are not opposed to sustainable development, but we will stand strong and united for the protection of the resources in which we have an obligation to effectively manage as defined in our UFA.”
Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief, Roberta Joseph, said that her citizens would prefer to be working to implement the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s plan instead of appealing to the courts to uphold the integrity of their agreements. “We would rather be living with the vision of the important natural area that the Yukon public spent countless hours sharing with us during numerous community sessions and consultations,” she said.
Chief Simon Mervyn of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun concluded by speaking about the unity that exists between the First Nations and environmental groups on the need to protect the Peel. “Our ancestors entrusted us to keep the land, the animals, the rivers and the wilderness as pristine as we were given it to manage when we signed our final agreements,” he remarked.
People in the audience, as well as those watching online from home or from community hubs set up in Mayo, Dawson and Inuvik, had the opportunity to ask questions of the panel. There was interest in how the outcome of the upcoming territorial election could influence things, and in how the Supreme Court has ruled in the past on cases relating to First Nations rights. Given the public accessibility of the hearing, one audience member also suggested that Yukoners charter a flight to Ottawa.
The final comment of the evening went to Jimmy Johnny, a Na-cho Nyak Dun elder, who said: “I have been out there in the Peel watershed from 1958 to 2010 every year from July to October. My brother, sister, mother, dad, and uncle also. To the Government of Yukon, please do not destroy our history.”
The Supreme Court of Canada is likely to hear the appeal in the early months of 2017, though a final date has yet to be set. CPAWS Yukon will provide ongoing updates as we prepare to go to Ottawa.