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Court Fight Continues to Preserve Pristine Peel Watershed in Yukon

The court fight continues to protect the pristine Peel Watershed from possible mining development.

Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation, the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation and other opponents of a development plan that opens much of Yukon Territory’s pristine Peel Watershed to the potential for mining headed back to court last week for the latest round against the territorial government.

The government is appealing a court ruling that mandated consultation with First Nations over the controversial plan. That appeal was heard on August 20 and 21 in a packed courtroom in Whitehorse, Yukon. The crowd overflowed into a second room, where the proceedings were livestreamed.

The remote region is at the forefront of a battle that First Nations have been waging over control of their traditional lands since the Yukon government overrode a plan to protect 80 percent of the pristine, majestic region, about the size of Scotland.

The Peel River Watershed Planning Commission, formed in 2004 and based on an earlier Umbrella Final Agreement with Yukon First Nations, released its report in 2011 with recommendations to protect 80 percent of the Peel watershed from mining and development. In a surprise move in 2014, the Yukon government ignored the commission and issued a new plan, which was developed without public input and only protects 29 percent of the watershed.

The Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation, the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation, the Yukon Conservation Society, and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society sued the government, asking that the commission’s plan be reinstated. In December 2014, the Yukon Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision agreeing with the plaintiffs, saying the government had failed to respect the terms of a consultation process.

RELATED: Peel Watershed: Yukon Judge Sides With First Nations in Historic Ruling

The Peel appeal has been met with ceremony and protests. A pep rally on August 12 attracted many, including virtually all seven elected opposition party members. A Water Ceremony on the steps of the courthouse at noon of the first hearing day attracted more than 250 people despite pouring rain. A Peel Barbeque held that evening drew more than 300 people.

The burning question for plaintiffs is: Why is the Yukon government, in which the Yukon Party holds 12 of the 19 legislative seats, trying to overturn the recommendations of a commission that the government itself set up (the Yukon Party has held a majority since 2002) and for which they selected commissioners?

It all boils down to an interpretation of the umbrella final agreement, CBC News noted on August 19. The government’s argument is that its last-minute intervention is necessary in order to better balance conservation with development, CBC News said.

“Through this appeal, the government is seeking clarity that the democratically elected Yukon government retains the authority to make final decisions on public lands,” the government said in a statement.

Yukon’s government did not respond to Indian Country Today Media Network’s requests for an interview. But Premier Darrell Posloski has made his pro-mining position clear.

I'm excited about the opportunities out there for the mining industry,” he said earlier this year to Mining.com. “Our goal is to be the number one mining location.”

The stakes in the Peel case are enormous.

“This is precedent-setting because it supports, at law, that final land claim agreements supercede territorial legislation,” Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus said after the December ruling.

RELATED: Indigenous Leaders Applaud Peel Watershed Court Ruling as Precedent-Setting

The final ruling is expected in three to six months.