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

[node:summary]Two Yukon First Nations and environmental groups argue landmark case to protect Peel Watershed in Yukon Supreme Court this week.
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Another landmark constitutional case is up before the courts this week in Canada, this one by two First Nations against the Government of Yukon in the Northwest Territories who are fighting to protect the Peel Watershed from mining and other industrial development.

The battle will take place in Yukon Supreme Court from July 7 through 11 as Thomas R. Berger, attorney for Nacho Nyak Dun First Nation, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon Chapter (CPAWS Yukon) and the Yukon Conservation Society (YCS), argues for the preservation of 54,000 square kilometres of wilderness in northern Yukon’s Peel River Watershed from mining and other industrial development, the groups said in a release. They filed suit on January 27, 2014 to force the territorial government to implement a land use plan to keep the wilderness pristine.

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“This plan was produced by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission after seven years of research and consultation, following a constitutionally mandated process under Yukon land claims agreements,” the plaintiffs said in a media release. “It recommends permanent protection of 55 per cent and interim protection for an additional 25 per cent, of the Peel watershed. Although the Commission’s plan is endorsed by the affected First Nations and has widespread public support, on January 21, 2014 the Government of Yukon adopted its own plan for the region, which opens up over 70 percent of the watershed to roads and industrial development.”

“Yukon Government’s unilateral decision to accept their own plan for the Peel undermines our Final Agreements,” said Nacho Nyak Dun Chief Ed Champion in the statement. “The government’s decision is also creating uncertainty for resource companies who want to do business in the Yukon, and it makes meaningful business relations between First Nations and resource companies difficult.”

“The fresh water that the seven rivers of the Peel Watershed provide is by far the most valuable resource within the Peel,” says Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Eddie Taylor. “Although we wanted 100% protected, we are willing to compromise and accept the Peel Commission’s Final Recommended Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan. We will stand up for our rights in court - the Peel Watershed is sacred to us as it was to our ancestors, and we want it to be around for our grandchildren.”

The First Nation leaders will be joined by more than 50 elders from the Mayo, Dawson and Mackenzie Delta communities are expected to witness the court arguments.

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“We are excited by the tremendous public support there is for our case,” says CPAWS Yukon Executive Director Gill Cracknell. “The importance of protecting one of North America’s last remaining large-scale wilderness watersheds has united people across the Yukon, Northwest Territories and beyond. To honor the many people who have expressed an interest in being involved during the trial week, a number of events have been organized in Whitehorse and the communities, as well as on social media.”

“There is no social license for resource development in the parts of the watershed that the Peel Commission has recommended for protection,” says YCS Peel Watershed Coordinator Karen Baltgailis. “We encourage mining companies with claims in those parts of the Peel to show their good will by giving up their contentious claims and operating in other parts of the Yukon where they are welcome.”

Details about the trial, events, the Peel Protection campaign, the plaintiff’s and defendant’s Outline of Argument and the plaintiff’s statement of claim can be viewed at: the Protect Peel Campaign, and a daily blog about the trial will contain a podcast summarizing the day’s events, the group said in their statement. The details can also be followed on Facebook, plus @CPAWSYukon, #ProtectPeel. Several events are also planned, starting with a silent vigil on July 7 on the courthouse steps and a prayer circle at the Dänojà Zho Cultural Centre.

The Peel River Watershed is at the northern end of the Rocky and Mackenzie mountains, more than 67,500 square kilometers that comprises one of North America’s largest intact ecosystems, the group said.