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View of the Peel Watershed. Photo: Jill Pangman.
View of the Peel Watershed. Photo: Jill Pangman.
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Wild heart of the Yukon in gravest peril

Jill Pangman

3rd July 2014

Next week the indigenous peoples of the Yukon challenge their Government in the Territory's Supreme Court, writes Jill Pangman. At issue, its plans to open the Peel watershed, a vast unspoilt ecosystem rich in wildlife and cultural meaning, for industrial development.

Places like the Peel are a treasure on a global scale, and they need to be honoured as such, not sold off to corporate interests.

My canoe surges through the water, spray flying off its bow, as it careens through a series of standing waves. I let out a whoop of joy, as I glide over a sea of coloured stones shimmering in the translucent shallow waters of the Wind River.

A great arc of limestone peaks frame a jagged skyline that soars at least a thousand meters above the valley floor. And in the midst of it all a golden eagle circles, a distant speck framed against a deep blue sky.

I'm on a two-week river journey into the Peel Watershed, North America's largest constellation of wild mountain rivers, tucked in the northeast corner of Yukon, Canada, straddling the Arctic Circle.

Healthy populations of caribou, sheep and grizzlies and a host of other species roam freely across these 16 million acres of road less tundra and forest seeing so few people that most have not yet learned to fear humans.

Around one tight bend I happen upon a bull caribou, with a massive rack of antlers, eyeing me as I ease past the patch of gravel where it's temporarily perched. I dip my paddle into the current only to the degree necessary to keep me on course, lest it bolts.

But it remains there, perplexed by the sudden appearance of this strange object drifting past.

A vast, intact ecosystem in peril

The Peel watershed, at close to 70,000 square kilometers in size, is a vast and intact wilderness ecosystem. It's rich in rare species that have flourished in these unspoiled waterways and mountains since long before the last ice age.

It's also rich in oil and gas, coal, uranium and gold, and other precious metals, placing it at the heart of a far too familiar fight over resources and wild spaces. The deep pervading silence, the curious wild creatures, the untouched, raw beauty could all too quickly become a distant memory.

In January, despite seven years of consultation-driven land-use planning and widespread public support for Peel protection, the Yukon government announced its own unilaterally-developed plan to open more than 70% of the watershed to industry and roads.

This is a land that has sustained not only untold numbers of wild animals. Hundreds, if not thousands of generations of people have been nourished by it as well. First Nation families have been harvesting game for food and clothing, gathering plants for medicine, and fishing from these fresh wild rivers since time immemorial.

This landscape is slow to heal

"The Peel is too important", says Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation elder Jimmy Johnny. "I'm afraid if mining ever started in the watershed it would be really bad for the downstream people, the water and the fish. No matter how much money you spend you can't heal the land and make people healthy after you poison them."

Jimmy drove through blinding snow and forty below temperatures to share his concerns with the Peel Watershed Land Use Planning's Commission, the independent body tasked with drafting a land use plan for the region under the elaborate process laid out in the Yukon First Nations agreements.

This process was to take into account competing land uses and conflicting values and, through listening to the people, make a recommendation for the region based on what it heard.

Jimmy Johnny worked as a guide outfitter in the Bonnet Plume, Snake and Wind River drainages since the 1960's, and has spent more time in the remote regions of the Peel watershed than any person alive.

He's seen the impact half a century of mining exploration has left on the land, with abandoned camps, zigzagging access tracks on the occasional mountainside, rudimentary airstrips, rusting oil drums, and a fifty-year old winter road still visible on the forested landscape.

Even one road, and it could all be destroyed

This is nothing however compared to the more permanent damage that would have been inflicted by any one of a handful of industrial proposals which, if they had been more economically feasible to develop, would have forever altered the region's wilderness character.

It turned out that none of the mineral deposits were high enough grade nor extensive enough to warrant the high cost of developing them. The relative inaccessibility of this country has been its saving grace.

However, this could change, with even one road being built into the heart of the watershed. Proponents of preserving the land and waters of this unique region have long recognized this potential and years ago launched an impressive campaign.

Foremost amongst those fighting to protect the area are the First Nations people whose ancestral lands span the entire watershed, the Na Cho Nyak Dun, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, Vuntut Gwitch'in and Tetlit Gwitch'in.

They are joined by two local conservation groups, the Yukon chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS), who initially brought the region into the public eye about 15 years ago, and has been the driving force behind the campaign until recently, and the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS).

Key stakeholders, like wilderness tourism operators, along with many concerned members of the public have weighed into the debate as well.

Big industry's 'sense of entitlement'

The Peel campaign has become a collaborative effort and a mammoth task. The First Nations have been concerned primarily with their constitutional rights, and have been vocal about what the land means to them and their culture.

CPAWS and YCS have focused on bringing the world class merits of the region into the territorial, national and global eye, knowing that public opinion can, and should, influence land use decisions.

Those determined to see the watershed protected from the inevitable ravages of industrial development are up against not only multinational corporations, but as well a Territorial government that does not listen to the majority of its own people.

Its politicians seem to subscribe to the old paradigm of prosperity, which is as outdated as the free entry mining laws which still govern the way Canadian land is valued, or not.

Industry has been operating for too long with a sense of entitlement to the land's non-renewable resources, as if no other values are as worthy of consideration.

We did not choose to go to law ... we were forced to

When the Yukon government, at the 11th hour, in January of this year, released their own unilaterally-developed plan, they opted to ignore the whole planning process, disregard the Commission's recommendations (which called for 80% of the land to be protected), and discount the huge outpouring of public support for Peel protection the First Nations. CPAWS and YCS were left with no choice but to go to court.

"This is a lawsuit nobody wanted to bring", stated iconic Canadian aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger who has been enlisted to lead the legal charge, along with his colleague Margaret Rosling.

"But the Yukon government has forced these plaintiffs to go to court not only in defence of First Nations and environmental values in Yukon, but also to uphold principles entrenched in the Constitution."

Berger, now in his early 80's, is well suited to lead this case as the lawyer who originally put aboriginal rights on the map - and into the Constitution - of Canada. The future of the Peel now rests in his and the court's hands.

Are indigenous treaties binding?

The case opens next Monday 7th July, in Yukon Supreme Court, and is scheduled to last all week. It could potentially make its way through the Yukon Court of Appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada, in which case a decision could still be years away.

The outcome of the Peel lawsuit not only influences whether the Commission's recommendation for 80% protection is upheld, it will determine whether modern land claims treaties are to be interpreted in spirit and intent, or merely given lip service by governments of the day. 

The Peel campaign, which started as an effort to protect a fairly pristine watershed, has grown over the years since its inception, to become emblematic of the injustices committed worldwide, in the name of industrial progress.

A global treasure, not a corporate goldmine

Places like the Peel are a treasure on a global scale, and they need to be honoured as such, not sold off to corporate interests for short-term financial gain.

Not only does the area offer crucial habitat for a plethora of wildlife species that need uninterrupted space to roam in, the Peel watershed is the traditional homeland of an indigenous people who have the right to continue to travel in this land and to subsist on and be renewed by her renewable resources.

The Peel is also about the wild, about the essence of wild places and the impact they have on us at a soul level. It is up to those of us who have been touched by wild nature, who understand how essential it is, to be its voice, to defend its right to exist.

There's no room for human arrogance and greed in a place like the Peel. Life just is, and all living forms within it are equally part of the whole. This fabric that has been woven in defence of this land and her waters is as expansive as the breadth of the entire watershed, and as exquisite, and powerful, as only forces of raw untamed nature can be.

When I dip my cup into one of the Peel's rivers, and drink from its pure essence, I know I have come home, and been embraced by the shifting moods of this land and its endless panorama of changing light.

The peace I feel within me radiates out as ripples do in a still pond, carrying the breadth of my love for this place and for all things wild.



Avaaz Petition: Government of Yukon: Protect the Peel

Websites about the Peel include:

Jill Pangman
 is a wilderness advocate living in Canada's Yukon Territory. As president of the Yukon chapter of Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and vice president of the Wilderness Tourism Association of Yukon she has been integrally involved with the campaign to protect the Peel watershed since close to its inception.

Jill has been guiding wilderness journeys in the Yukon's wildlands, including the Peel watershed for 25 years through her guiding business SILA SOJOURNS - Wilderness and Creative Journeys.

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