In­dus­tri­al­ist vs. In­dige­nous

A high-stakes land-use bat­tle at the pris­tine heart of the Yukon

The Walrus - - CONTENTS - By Rhi­an­non Rus­sell

A high-stakes land-use bat­tle at the pris­tine heart of the Yukon

For two weeks, they slept along­side rivers, pitch­ing their tents un­der a sky that never went dark. They picked blue­ber­ries the size of grapes. They caught grayling and sea­soned it with sriracha. They show­ered un­der a wa­ter­fall and drank from the river. They looked for things their In­dige­nous el­ders had told them about: wind­ing foot trails; a river­bank grave, marked by a wooden cross; tree stumps chopped by the stone axes of their an­ces­tors.

For most of the eight pad­dlers, who ranged in age from 16 to thirty-one, this was the first time they’d laid eyes on the Peel

wa­ter­shed. The group, called Youth of the Peel, came from three of the four First Na­tions whose tra­di­tional ter­ri­tory falls within the 68,000-square-kilome­tre re­gion in the Yukon’s north­east. The wa­ter­shed has been im­por­tant to th­ese First Na­tions for mil­len­nia, dat­ing back to when their no­madic move­ments across the re­gion fol­lowed the cy­cle of the sea­sons. To­day, just one all-sea­son road, the gravel Demp­ster High­way, passes through the Peel, in its western cor­ner. The rest of the wa­ter­shed can be ac­cessed by boat, dog sled, snow­mo­bile, or float plane. It’s home to thriv­ing pop­u­la­tions of cari­bou, griz­zly bears, wolves, pere­grine falcons, and moose. There are no per­ma­nent hu­man res­i­dents. The size of New Brunswick, it is the Yukon’s Yukon — the wildest part of an already wild place.

There are con­flict­ing vi­sions for the wa­ter­shed. Many Yukon­ers, in­clud­ing the af­fected First Na­tions, want it to re­main an in­tact ecosys­tem. But the Yukon gov­ern­ment and the min­ing com­mu­nity have ex­pressed their ea­ger­ness to dig for min­er­als. Over 8,000 quartz claims have already been staked. The de­bate has di­vided the ter­ri­tory, and protests have been go­ing on for years.

On March 22, the Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case that will help de­cide the fu­ture of the Peel’s pris­tine land­scape. “You live in sub­ur­bia but con­sider your­self Cana­dian be­cause of th­ese vast, un­spoiled wilder­nesses,” says Lewis Rifkind, the Yukon Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety’s min­ing an­a­lyst. “The idea that they ex­ist be­comes very im­por­tant.”

Cur­rent ten­sions over the Peel can largely be traced back to 2014, when the Yukon gov­ern­ment ig­nored rec­om­men­da­tions that emerged from a seven-year con­sul­ta­tion process. While an in­de­pen­dent com­mis­sion had pro­posed pro­tect­ing 80 per­cent of the area, the gov­ern­ment put for­ward a very dif­fer­ent plan: to open 71 per­cent of it to in­dus­trial de­vel­op­ment. Two First Na­tions — the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Na-cho Nyak Dun — sued. They were joined in the law­suit by the Yukon Con­ser­va­tion So­ci­ety and the Cana­dian Parks and Wilder­ness So­ci­ety’s Yukon chap­ter — mak­ing this pos­si­bly one of the first cases in Canada to fea­ture First Na­tions and en­vi­ron­men­tal groups as co-lit­i­gants.

The coali­tion ar­gued that the gov­ern­ment dis­re­garded the process out­lined in the Um­brella Fi­nal Agree­ment, a 1993 doc­u­ment that es­tab­lished a frame­work for the Yukon’s four­teen First Na­tions to cede their Abo­rig­i­nal ti­tle in ex­change for, among other rights, a say in land-use projects. The Yukon Supreme Court agreed with the claimants. The gov­ern­ment ap­pealed, and in 2015, the courts or­dered the process back to an ear­lier stage, es­sen­tially giv­ing the gov­ern­ment a sec­ond chance. The pro-peel side, fear­ing that the do-over would al­low the ter­ri­tory to im­pose its original plan, ap­pealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Supreme Court de­ci­sion will set a prece­dent for land-use plan­ning in the Yukon and could have im­pli­ca­tions for how mod­ern treaties are in­ter­preted else­where in the coun­try. The case also comes at a del­i­cate time for Yukon min­ing com­pa­nies. Ex­plo­ration spend­ing in the ter­ri­tory dropped from $330 mil­lion in 2011 to an es­ti­mated $92 mil­lion in 2015, and low global min­eral prices con­tinue to take their toll. Two mines have closed since 2013, and lengthy le­gal bat­tles are a turnoff for in­vestors de­bat­ing whether to un­der­write the in­fra­struc­ture re­quired to mine the Peel — a re­gion that is

moun­tain­ous, boggy, and frozen for at least half the year.

It’s not as if the land won’t be com­mer­cially use­ful, though. A by-prod­uct of the Peel’s con­tin­ued ex­is­tence is that two es­tab­lished in­dus­tries — big-game hunt­ing and wilder­ness tourism — will keep op­er­at­ing; roughly 300 peo­ple pad­dle the Peel’s rivers ev­ery sum­mer. This traf­fic isn’t any­where near as dis­rup­tive to wa­ter and wildlife habi­tat as min­ing would be.

Jimmy Johnny may know the Peel bet­ter than any­one else alive to­day. He started wran­gling horses in the wa­ter­shed in 1958, when he was thir­teen. Then he spent fifty years work­ing as a big-game guide be­fore his re­tire­ment in 2010. The Na-cho Nyak Dun el­der can tell you where moose bathe in a hot spring, and where to find wa­ter so cold it’ll make your teeth feel frozen. Johnny has been a con­stant pres­ence at court hear­ings and protests. Mine the Peel for profit, he ar­gues, and you’ll never be able to re­turn the land­scape to what it was. “There’s no money in this world that will ever re­place what you’ve de­stroyed.”

WHILE THE move­ment to con­serve the Peel has taken shape in White­horse, where the leg­is­la­ture, court­house, and most of the Yukon’s pop­u­la­tion are lo­cated, it’s most vis­i­ble 1,000 kilo­me­tres north. Fort Mcpher­son, in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, is home to about 800 peo­ple, most of them Tetlit Gwich’in. There, “Pro­tect the Peel” bumper stick­ers have been slapped on to kitchen cup­boards, fridges, boat mo­tors, and front doors.

“To peo­ple in the com­mu­ni­ties,” says Rifkind, re­fer­ring to the vil­lages and towns out­side White­horse, “the Peel is more than an en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sue. It’s a cul­tural is­sue, a way-of-life is­sue.” What­ever hap­pens up­river in the Peel will af­fect the peo­ple of Fort Mcpher­son di­rectly. The Tetlit Gwich’in fear that the in­fra­struc­ture that springs up around such de­vel­op­ment will lead to habi­tat loss for the cari­bou, moose, and fish they rely on. An­other fear is in­dus­trial con­tam­i­na­tion. It’s not an out­landish con­cern, given that a mine in Faro that closed in 1998 still contains 70 mil­lion tonnes of tail­ings and 320 mil­lion tonnes of waste rock — de­spite the fact the fed­eral gov­ern­ment has spent mil­lions an­nu­ally on cleanup.

When I ask Bobbi Rose Koe, who is Tetlit Gwich’in, what her peo­ple would lose if the Peel were to be de­vel­oped, I see tears in her eyes. “Our iden­tity,” she says. “Our sto­ries.” Now twenty-seven, Koe grew up in Fort Mcpher­son, where she learned to hunt, fish, and trap. Her great-grand­par­ents were buried along one of the wa­ter­shed’s rivers. A co-or­ga­nizer of Youth of the Peel, Koe is part of the new gen­er­a­tion of ac­tivists tak­ing up this cause. “We need this place,” she says, “be­cause our youth have to un­der­stand where they come from.”

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.