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

A Yukon Supreme Court Justice has struck down the territory's plan to allow mining throughout most of the pristine Peel Watershed.
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First Nations in Yukon won a historic legal victory on Tuesday when a judge ruled that the Canadian territory’s government had overstepped its bounds in overriding a land-use plan to preserve the bulk of the Peel Watershed.

In the December 2 ruling, Yukon Supreme Court Justice Ron Veale agreed with the four plaintiffs—Nacho Nyak Dun and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nations, Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon Chapter (CPAWS Yukon), and the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS)—that the territorial government had violated a plan known as the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA) that had been hammered out meticulously to allow some development but not a total devastation of the watershed and habitat.

Further, Veale sent the government back to the consultation stage, the Canadian Press reported, saying that the alternate plan put forth by Yukon officials ran counter to the goal of reconciliation with First Nations and thus did not uphold the “honor and integrity of the crown.”

“This is a remarkable judgment,” said attorney Thomas Berger, who represented the plaintiffs. “The land use planning process in the Umbrella Final Agreement signed by Canada, Yukon First Nations and the Yukon Government in 1993, and entrenched in the Constitution has been vindicated.”

The Umbrella Final Agreement, signed in 1993 by several Yukon First Nations and the Yukon government, laid out a land-use planning process that had been a decade in the making, said Thomas Berger, the attorney for the plaintiffs, in a statement he issued after the ruling. The Yukon government had not disputed the tenets of the agreement, which was crafted over five years at a cost of $1.6 million by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission, according to CBC News.

The commission recommended in 2011 that 80 percent of the watershed be protected, much of it lying in the traditional territories of the Nacho Nyak Dun, the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin, and the Tetlit Gwich’in First Nations. The other 20 percent would be open to development, according to the agreement, which covered 26,000 square miles. The Yukon government had a chance to change the agreement in 2011 but did not, the plaintiffs said. 

“Following the 2011 territorial election, the Yukon Party government rejected the commission’s land use plan and developed its own plan, which it released in 2012 and approved in January 2014,” CBC News said. “It provides protection from development of less than 30 per cent of the land.”

The plaintiffs filed suit in February 2014, soon after the newly elected Yukon government had finalized its own plan. They argued the case in July. 

RELATED: Yukon First Nations Fight to Protect Peel River Watershed From Industrial Devastation

“We are very happy to see the courts honor and uphold the integrity of the Umbrella Final Agreement and Yukon First Nation agreements,” said Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation Chief Ed Champion in a statement.

“The Peel River Watershed is as sacred to our people as it was to our ancestors, and through this decision today we have ensured it will remain so for our grandchildren,” said Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation Chief Roberta Joseph.

“The planning process will now return to the stage where Yukon Government ran it off the rails–the final round of consultation with First Nations and the public,” said the plaintiffs in their statement. “The court order constrains Yukon Government to the modifications they previously proposed, but the question of the amount of land protected and the question of access are off limits.”

The Yukon government said it remained committed to working with First Nations and other groups while assessing the judge’s ruling.

“The government will carefully review today’s decision before determining how to move forward and will assess implications of the judgment on land use planning and the economic future in Yukon,” the territorial government said in a statement. “As we examine the court’s opinion and the reasons given by the judge, we will continue to work with First Nations, consulting and engaging on many ongoing files, projects and activities.”