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Landmark Supreme Court decision is a victory for First Nations and environmental groups.

  • Published on Dec 01 2017 |
  • This article is tagged as: peel

Landmark Supreme Court decision is a victory for First Nations and environmental groups.
Unanimous decision upholds plan to protect Peel Watershed and sets precedent for how modern treaties will be interpreted across Canada.

December 1, 2017 — Ottawa, ON — Yukon First Nations and environmental groups have won a landmark Supreme Court case. The judgment released today upholds a land use plan that protects the majority of the Peel Watershed in northeastern Yukon. It’s a massive victory for Yukon First Nations and cause for environmental celebration on a global scale.

The court was asked to rule on two points:
• The correct remedy for the Yukon government’s derailment of the land use planning process.
• Whether parties to a land use planning process can reject a recommended plan at the final stage in the planning process.

In a unanimous decision, the highest court in Canada ruled that the Yukon government must complete meaningful final consultations on a land use plan that protects 80% of the pristine watershed. This comes after the Yukon government, under previous leadership, derailed the planning process, forcing through its own agenda to industrialize 71% of the Peel and betraying its constitutional obligations. The ruling sets a precedent for the future of land use planning in the territory, ensuring the integrity of First Nations Final Agreements is upheld and Yukon is working together in the spirit of reconciliation.

The court did not rule on the Yukon government’s right to reject a land use plan. The ruling does provide guidance that limits the Yukon government’s ability to modify or reject a plan at the final stage of the process.

The Peel Watershed is one of the largest unspoiled natural areas in North America. The 68,000 km2 of rugged wilderness, larger than Nova Scotia, lies within the traditional territories of three Yukon First Nations — Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation, the First Nation of Na Cho Nyäk Dän, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation — as well as the Tetlit Gwich’in in the neighbouring Northwest Territories, who have relied on the watershed for physical and cultural nourishment for millennia.

Today’s ruling is the culmination of a three-year legal battle between a coalition of the affected Yukon First Nations, who partnered with the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yukon Chapter (CPAWS Yukon) and the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS) to take Yukon government to court over its breach of the First Nations Final Agreements during the land use planning process.

Although the new Yukon government has promised to accept the Final Recommended Plan, which protects 80% of the watershed, today’s ruling sets a precedent for how modern treaties will be interpreted across Canada for decades to come.

Quotes

“For many years, we’ve been on a path to hold the Yukon Government accountable for promises made during the land claims process. We’ve been working hard towards protecting an area valuable to our First Nations people and so many other Yukoners. I am extremely pleased to be finally arriving on a path of certainty. The Supreme Court of Canada has upheld our treaty agreements and this is the outcome we were hoping for. This is a victory for our modern-day treaties and the collaborative planning processes promised for Land Use Planning. We look forward to working with the present government on the next steps outlined by the court.”
- Chief Roberta Joseph, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation

“I want to thank Yukoners and Canadians for all the support in protecting the integrity of our Final Agreements. The agreements were designed for us to protect the environment, and now we will work in unity, for the animals, the land and the people. As we move forward, we hope that Canadians and Yukoners will plan for the betterment of humanity. I’m looking forwards to coming home to celebrate.”
- Chief Simon Mervyn, First Nation of Na Cho Nyäk Dän

“We have always been responsible stewards of our Traditional Territory even in the face of adversity and uncertainty. We are pleased that the Court agrees that the path towards reconciliation requires honourable implementation of the spirit and intent of our Final Agreements.”
- Chief Bruce Charlie, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation

“Today is an incredible day for Canada’s wilderness! Thanks to the Supreme Court of Canada’s ruling, the future of this extraordinary landscape now looks much brighter. We’re grateful that future generations will be able to enjoy the land as we do today, and that the wildlife that thrives in the Peel Watershed will continue to have a home.”
- Chris Rider, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, Yukon Chapter

“The land use planning process, negotiated in modern-day treaties, brought people together for a common goal — protection of the sacred Peel Watershed — and allowed us to stop a government gone off the rails. It is a vital democratic process that must be defended. And that is what we have accomplished today.”
- Christina Macdonald, Yukon Conservation Society


Background

The Peel Watershed is the northern anchor for the Yellowstone to Yukon conservation corridor, providing increasingly crucial habitats to iconic and rare species as climate change and habitat loss threaten North American wildlife.

A seven-year planning process, laid out in the land claims agreements signed between Yukon First Nations and the federal and territorial governments, had produced a Final Recommended Plan to keep 80% of the Peel Watershed off-limits to roads and industry. However, in 2014, the Yukon government rejected this plan in favour of its own plan to open up over 71% of the watershed to roads, mining and drilling. This move derailed the land use planning process that is specified in Yukon First Nation Final Agreements.

This sparked a three-year legal battle between the coalition of affected First Nations and environmental groups, against Yukon government over the future of the Peel Watershed and the integrity of land use planning provisions in the Final Agreements. The case was initially heard by the Supreme Court of Yukon in 2014 and then again by the Court of Appeal of Yukon in 2015. The interpretation of Chapter 11 of the Final Agreements is central to the case. Both Yukon courts found that the Government of Yukon failed to honour its obligations under these agreements.

Where the courts differed was on the remedy for Yukon government’s breach of process. The Supreme Court of Yukon ordered that the land use planning process should be returned to the stage of final consultation with the First Nations and affected communities. The ruling also prevented the Yukon government from introducing new modifications to the Final Recommended Plan. However, the Court of Appeal of Yukon ordered that the process should be sent back to an earlier stage of consultation, which would allow the government to advance entirely new modifications to the Plan and unwind years of progress. The Court of Appeal also ruled the government has the right, at the end of the day, to reject the entire Peel Watershed Final Recommended Plan.

Renowned Indigenous rights lawyer, Thomas Berger, represented the First Nations and environmental groups at the Supreme Court on March 22 of this year.

Media Contacts:

Heather Badenoch at heather@villagepr.ca, 613-859-8232
Nadine Sander-Green at nsander-green@cpawsyukon.org, 867-335-9758
Julia Duchesne at outreach@yukonconservation.org, 250-507-1453