The Yukon First Nations’ Fight to Protect the Peel Watershed
Covering over 68,000 square kilometres of wilderness in the Yukon, the Peel Watershed is one of the largest unspoiled natural areas left in North America. There, the pure rivers wind through a land of rugged mountains, boreal forests and tundra, and grizzlies, wolves, moose, caribou and lynx still run free. The Peel Watershed is the traditional territory of three Yukon First Nations – the Na-Cho Nyk Dän, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Vuntut Gwitchin – as well as the Teetl'it Gwich’in in the neighbouring Northwest Territories. For thousands of years, “these indigenous groups have hunted, fished, travelled and lived through all corners of the Peel Watershed, reflected in age-old stories and deep knowledge of the land; and still today, sustainable use of the watershed is the backbone of remote northern communities such as Old Crow and Fort McPherson” (“Protect the Peel”, 2017).
For the four First Nations who call the area home, the protection of the Peel is of the utmost importance. However, this wild place is under threat; the Peel Watershed contains deposits of oil, gas, coal, uranium and other minerals that the Government of the Yukon wishes to exploit by building roads, mining and drilling. These resource development activities would cause pollution and environmental destruction that would devastate the First Nations’ traditional way of life and their cultural identity.
The Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) of the 1990s guarantees First Nations a decision-making role on their traditional territory. The UFA is a political agreement between the Government of the Yukon, the Government of Canada, and fourteen First Nations; it provided the template for negotiating individual land claim agreements (Final Agreements) with each Yukon First Nations and established a land use planning process. Eleven of the fourteen First Nations who signed the UFA have now settled their land claims and are self-governing, which means that the Indian Act no longer applies to them. The Nacho Nyak Dun Final Agreement and Vuntut Gwitchin Final Agreement were both signed in 1993, and the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Final Agreement was signed in 1998. These First Nations can therefore make laws and decisions on their settlement land and traditional territory.
Beginning in 2004, these First Nations participated in the land use planning process under the auspices of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. The Commission, after consulting with the public, the stakeholders and the plan partners, released a Land Use Plan in 2011 recommending that 80% of the region be protected from roads and industrial development. The stakeholders and the public, including the First Nations, supported this plan; however, at the last minute, in January 2014, “the Government of Yukon derailed everything, rejecting the Final Recommended Plan and pushing through its own plan to industrialize 71% of the Peel, leaving just a small portion protected” (“Protect the Peel”, 2017).
This new plan felt like a betrayal. In response, the Peel First Nations, Canadian Parks And Wilderness Society (CPAWS) Yukon, and the Yukon Conservation Society decided to take the Yukon Government to court. The Yukon Supreme Court ruled in December 2014 that the Yukon Government had violated the Land Use Planning Process and “sent the planning process back to the final round of consultation, without the option for Yukon Government to introduce new modifications that would increase access and industrial development in the watershed” (Yukon Conservancy Society, 2017). The Yukon Government appealed the ruling in 2015. The subsequent judgment by the Yukon Court of Appeal created a loophole that would allow the Yukon Government to modify the plan to increase development in the Peel. The First Nations had no other choice but to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada. In December 2015, the First Nations of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Vuntut Gwitchin, along with the two conservation organizations, applied for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, which heard the case in March 2017.
On March 22, 2017, World Water Day, “the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled that the Yukon Government did not adhere to the Umbrella Final Agreement and therefore must go back and complete meaningful consultations on a land use plan that protects 80% of the watershed” (“Protect the Peel”, 2017). This was a victory for the First Nations of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, and Vuntut Gwitchin, and for all the First Nations in the Yukon, as this ruling sets a precedent for how the Yukon Government should work with First Nations.
Nevertheless, the fight to protect the Peel Watershed was not over yet. While the Supreme Court’s ruling required that the government go back to the consultation stage, it did not protect the Peel itself. Since 2017, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s Final Recommended Plan had been under review, and consultations in order to finalize and approve the Plan were scheduled for January 2019. However, the Supreme Court has specified that any modifications of the 2011 Final Recommended Plan must be “minor or partial” and that the Yukon’s power to modify is subject to prior consultation with the First Nations. The Peel Watershed protection advocates were hopeful that, this time, the final consultations will lead to the protection of at least 80% of the region.
After years of fighting for the protection of the Peel, the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan was finally approved by the five governments last August. Victory!
From now on, Conservation Areas will make up 83 per cent of the Peel Watershed, and the remaining 17 per cent will be Integrated Management Areas. Thanks to the Na-Cho Nyk Dän, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin, the Teetl'it Gwich’in and all the supporters of the campaign, the Peel Watershed will remain, like the Yukon, “Larger than Life”.
For resources including the Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan, past news stories, press releases, and legal documents, visit this Dropbox Link.
About the Author
Kimberley has a M.Sc in International Studies (Cooperation, Development, Economics) from the University of Montreal. She is passionate about the environment and Indigenous peoples' land rights. Instagram - @kimberleymgs