(By Matthew Got, Queen’s University)
Picture a mountainous boreal ecosystem the size of New Brunswick that is uninhabited and undeveloped. An abundance of wildlife, including both predators and prey live free of human disturbance in the mountains, canyons, hills, and the intertwining rivers. One gravel road, the Dempster Highway, passes through the haven’s western border allowing canoeists and hikers glimpses of the wilderness.
This is the Peel Watershed. It is located in the north east of the Yukon Territory and sits on the traditional territories of the Na-cho Nyak Dun, the Tetlit Gwich’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin, and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations people who still hunt and trap on these lands as they have traditionally. Through the Peel and Mackenzie River, this watershed drains 14% of the Yukon Territory and opens into Beaufort Sea. Much of this ecosystem is expected to change in the decades to come, as the effects of climate change are more extreme in the far north. Both the First Nations people and other Yukoners have expressed the importance of conserving this watershed as a sanctuary for wildlife.
The Yukon Government, motivated by industrial and mining interests, has jeopardized the future of the Peel Watershed. Government officials announced on January 21st, 2014 their plans to open up 71% of the watershed to mining and mineral exploration effective immediately. Of the 29% that is protected, existing mining claims will be grandfathered and the development of roads to these claims will be permitted leaving not even this region truly protected. Not only has the government of Yukon chosen a policy that is unsustainable for the environment, it has entirely ignored public opinion.
Under the Umbrella Final Agreement of the Yukon Indian Land Claims Agreement negotiated in 1993, the First Nations people relinquished the rights to some of their traditional territories in exchange for a meaningful role in the planning process of these lands. Their role is constitutionally protected, however the territorial government does have the final say on how crown land will be used. As such, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, consisting of First Nations and government-nominated members was formed in October 2004 to guide this process. Despite the First Nations representatives’ call for the full protection of the Peel Watershed, a compromise was reached. The Final Recommendation Plan published in July 2011 called for an 80% protection of the Peel Watershed.
In the fall 2011 territorial elections, the Peel Watershed was a hot topic. The Yukon Party did not provide its policy on the issue, and was elected with a majority government despite only receiving 40% of the popular vote. Once in power, the Yukon Party disclosed their stance. They held that while the process of the commission was not flawed, their decision was. And as a majority government, the party felt obligated to rectify the matter. In complete disregard for the proposal of the commission, the First Nations people, and the general public, the government of Yukon unilaterally proposed and chose an alternative option.
The role of government in this issue is rather contentious. To what extent should a majority government have the power to act on an issue about which the party had failed to express its views during the election campaign? The situation in the Yukon represents a shortcoming of our democracy. While the members of a government are democratically elected, the Yukon Party did not declare their stance and so were not bound to their word. Yukoners placed their trust in the Yukon Party and have been deceived.
The balance between environmental and economic interests is also a concern. Most of Yukon is already open for development. The Peel Watershed is the last great tract of wilderness in North America. Once opened to mining and other economic interests, the effects on the environment and the land will be irreversible. Though environmental changes occur over a long period of time, we must recognize and advocate for the planet’s protection now especially when decisions that have short-term economic benefits are prioritized. While the government has final say in how crown land will be used, it has no right to ignore plans laid out by the public and unilaterally make a decision that will change the landscape of the territory for generations to come.
Lastly, the Yukon government has violated the land claims treaties. The agreement signed in 1993 by the First Nations representatives and the government gave the First Nations people a role in planning the use of the land. The input given by the First Nations through the Peel Watershed Planning Commission has been altogether ignored. The Na-cho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations in conjunction with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon and Yukon Conservation Society have brought a lawsuit to the government for violating the Land Claims Agreement with their plan. There is much at stake in this lawsuit not only for First Nations rights, but also for the future of the region and the future of democracy in Canada.
- Tom Clynes, “Yukon Government Opens Vast Wilderness to Mining,” National Geographic, January 24, 2014, accessed from: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/01/140124-canada-yukon-peel-watershed-wilderness-mining-first-nations/
- “Yukon Releases its Peel River Watershed land-use Plan,” CBC News, January 21, 2014, accessed from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/yukon-releases-its-peel-river-watershed-land-use-plan-1.2505658
- Peel Water Planning Commission. “The Planning Region.” Accessed on: February 17, 2014. Accessed from: http://www.peel.planyukon.ca/region.html
- Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development. “Umbrella Final Agreement Between The Government Of Canada, The Council For Yukon Indians And The Government Of The Yukon.” Last modified: February 9, 2011. Accessed on: February 17, 2014. Accessed from: http://www.aadnc-aandc.gc.ca/eng/1297278586814/1297278924701#toc