The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court of Canada to uphold a land use plan that will protect 80 per cent of the Peel watershed from development and guide future land use planning between the Yukon government and First Nations is being celebrated unequivocally by – almost – everyone involved across the country today.
“This is a great day for the Peel watershed, the First Nations in the Yukon, and for all Yukoners,” said Margaret Rosling, a lawyer for the appellants, “completely vindicating the plight of these plaintiffs throughout the courts in the Yukon and now at the Supreme Court of Canada.”
Rosling spoke at a press conference in Ottawa this morning alongside the chiefs of the three appellant Yukon First Nations.
“We’ve been on a long, twisting journey to hold the Yukon government accountable for promises made during the land claims process and to protect an area valuable to our First Nations and so many other Yukoners,” said Chief Roberta Joseph of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.
“Today, I’m extremely pleased to arrive on a path of certainty on the Peel land use plan.”
She explained that a court process was never the First Nations’ choice.
Rather, it was a necessary action based on the previous Yukon Party government’s breach of their final agreements in the Peel land use planning exercise, Joseph said.
Now that a decision has been rendered, she said, the First Nations look forward to completing the planning process for a region integral to the lifestyle and future of the First Nations on whose traditional territory the Peel is found.
The watershed is a source of food, medicine and ancestral history for Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Joseph explained.
“This is our university and our hospital. That’s what’s at stake here.
“We continue to use it to teach our youth about our history, our traditional knowledge, and that’s where we go to bond... and where we gain back our spiritual and holistic strength.”
Chief Simon Mervyn of the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun and Chief Bruce Charlie of the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation also shared their reactions to the decision at the Ottawa news conference and in a statement from the appellants.
Mervyn thanked Yukoners and Canadians “for all the support in protecting the integrity of our Final Agreements.” He said he’s looking forward to going home to celebrate the decision.
“We are pleased that the court agrees that the path towards reconciliation requires honourable implementation of the spirit and intent of our Final Agreements,” Charlie said in his statement.
Chris Rider is the executive director of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society’s Yukon chapter. He pointed out the significance of this decision for Canadian wilderness.
The land and water in the Peel watershed comprise approximately 68,000 kilometres, or 14 per cent, of the Yukon.
Under the plan the Yukon government put forward in 2014, 71 per cent of the Peel would be open to development.
“A government off the rails,” has now been rerouted by the highest court in Canada, Christina Macdonald of the Yukon Conservation Society said in the statement.
“A vital democratic process” was defended today, she explained – that is, the land use planning process outlined in the Yukon First Nations‘ final agreements.
The Supreme Court decision now requires that the Yukon government conduct a fulsome and genuine consultation on the final recommended plan for the Peel that protects 80 per cent of it.
The Yukon Liberals made a 2016 election campaign platform promise to implement that plan, which they reiterated last January.
Kate White, the Yukon NDP environment critic, provided a statement this morning in which she urged the government to follow through on that pledge.
“The Yukon NDP, like many Yukoners, will not accept anything short of a full and complete implementation of the final recommended plan,” White said.
In a statement released at noon today, Premier Sandy Silver confirmed that his government will indeed implement that plan “collaboratively and respectfully with First Nation governments in the spirit of reconciliation.
“The Peel has come to signify so much more than just a land use plan. It has been about a territory coming of age. We are still learning how to implement our modern treaties and I am confident that if we take this journey together, the results will benefit all Yukoners.”
It was under then-premier Darrell Pasloski’s 2011-16 Yukon Party government that the Peel land use planning process derailed.
Today, the Yukon Party official Opposition released a statement saying the party understands that mistakes were made, based on the Supreme Court decision.
The Yukon Party said it respects these findings, the Umbrella Final Agreement, the First Nation land claims agreements and First Nation Self-Government in the Yukon, according to its statement.
However, “our concerns about the restrictiveness and cost of implementation remain, and we are eager to learn how the Liberal government intends on dealing with these issues,” the statement reads.
“In particular, we are interested in the government’s plans to deal with the thousands of legitimately-held mineral claims in the region and whether the government plans on compensating the claim owners for any direct or indirect expropriation.”
The Yukon government reports it has spent $449,000 in legal fees related to the case.