Indigenous leaders are applauding as precedent-setting the Yukon Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of First Nations rights and the protection of the pristine, fragile Peel Watershed from mining.
“In yesterday’s historic decision, the Yukon Supreme Court supported the First Nations governmental rights and interests. The First Nations in Yukon and the Northwest Territories see it as a great achievement,” said Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus in a statement after the December 2 ruling.
“This is precedent-setting because it supports, at law, that the final land claim agreements supercede territorial legislation,” Erasmus said. “These agreements were negotiated over many years between the parties and agreed upon. They are part of the Canadian Constitution and therefore protection is provided and prohibits others to override the authority of First Nation governments.”
Part of the victory is due to the Gwich’in Tribal Council, which stepped in as intervenors as landowners and stakeholders in the Peel Watershed because of obligations under Treaty No. 11, which the ruling thus re-validated.
The Peel Watershed is among the last untouched river systems in the world, according to National Geographic, and thus essential globally.
“Seven major rivers flow through the Scotland-sized area, which is home to healthy populations of caribou, grizzly bears, wolverines, and peregrine falcons,” National Geographic reported, explaining the region’s importance. “The nearly roadless landscape is also the winter range of the Porcupine caribou herd, which summers in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”
The ruling is a game-changer that could have repercussions throughout Canada when it comes to planning land use and managing resources, Peel Watershed Planning Commission Chairman Dave Loeks told National Geographic.
"Conservation values have more likelihood of being taken into account in formulating public policy," he said. "Mining and industry may have a less prominent position in policymaking, which means that the remaining open spaces in the north have a fighting chance."
For First Nations, of course, it’s a matter of spiritual survival.
"The Yukon government's unilateral decision on the plan for the Peel violated our agreements," said Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation Chief Ed Champion to National Geographic. "This land is our breadbasket, it's our university, our church. We've been there since time immemorial, and we'll be here forever. To protect our land and water is the soul of the First Nations."