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Historic legal decision on Peel Land Use Plan

Wind River by Peter Mather

Co-authored by Gill Cracknell, CPAWS Yukon Chapter Executive Director and Eric Hebert-Daly, CPAWS National Executive Director

Yesterday the Yukon Supreme Court issued a decision about a lawsuit concerning the Peel Watershed launched in January 2014 by two Yukon First Nations, CPAWS Yukon, and the Yukon Conservation Society.

Smiles, hugs, and tears have flowed freely since the news came in; so many people have come together for the Peel and yesterday’s win was a huge step toward significant protection of the incredible northern watershed.

Justice Ron Veale has ruled that the Yukon government must honour a seven-year process that led to the Final Recommended Land Use Plan for the Peel Watershed in 2011, giving the 67,400 km wilderness watershed 80% protection from industrial development, (55% permanent and 25% interim).

The court order constrains Yukon government to the modifications they proposed at an earlier stage in the process mandated by the Yukon land claims agreements, but the questions of the amount of land protected and access are off limits.  The unilateral plan which the government released in January 2014 has been quashed.

This court decision shows that seven years of land use planning undertaken between the territorial government, affected First Nations, stakeholders and the general public, including CPAWS, was not in vain. It gives respect to the right of Yukon First Nations to have a meaningful say over the fate of their traditional lands, and it provides more hope than we have had in years for conserving one of the most spectacular remaining wilderness regions in the world.

Not only is this a major victory for the people of Yukon and the Yukon First Nations, it is a victory for all of Canada and for the world. The door is now open to the hard work that must follow to establish the protected areas and special conservation zones within the Peel Watershed. That will in turn open the door to new opportunities such as increased sustainable eco-tourism in the region, and will protect a way of life for those who have lived along the Peel since time immemorial. . This decision also provides much needed certainty to all land users in the region, including the resource extraction industry.

CPAWS began working with local first nation members to conserve the Peel Watershed over a decade ago.  You may remember a spectacular book, DVD, art show and speaking tour about the "Three Rivers Journey" organized by former Yukon Chapter Executive Director Juri Peepre. The canoe and rafting trips down the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume rivers inspired stunning images and art which toured across Canada bringing awareness of this spectacular region to many of us who have never had the opportunity to go there. .

Over the last ten years, CPAWS Yukon has worked steadfastly with our partners through every step of the land use planning process, preparing submissions, sharing information with the public, providing scientific and policy advice, helping to bring traditional knowledge of Indigenous people to a wider audience, all with the goal of conserving one of the most spectacular remaining sets of wild ecosystems on earth.

When faced with a new territorial government in 2011 that wanted to change the way the table was set for the Peel, we knew we were in for a battle. With the help of very generous supporters across Canada and beyond, we were able to dig in and hold our ground. CPAWS Yukon, the First Nations of Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, and the Yukon Conservation Society joined forces to retain renowned aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger, Q.C. to bring our case to trial.

In Mr Berger's words, "The vindication of this process (of the Land Use Planning Commission based on the Yukon's Umbrella Agreement between Canada, the territory and first nations) is a great victory for the First Nations, the environmental organizations, and all Yukoners.  In the end, one of the world's last great wilderness areas will be protected."

We could not have said it any better.  We are certain that there will be more hard work ahead to turn the Peel Land Use Plan into reality, and we don't yet know how the Yukon Government will react to the verdict. But one thing we do know, CPAWS and our supporters will remain steadfast in our efforts to create a wilderness legacy for generations to come!



Related Media:

- Globe and Mail: Yukon government to re-do preservation plan for massive watershed

- CBC News: Peel watershed: Yukon court strikes down government land use plan