Monday, January 27, 2014

Peel land use plan lawsuit launched

It's official - the future of the Peel watershed is now in the hands of the Yukon Supreme Court.

Two First Nations and two environmental groups, represented by prominent B.C. aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger, filed their lawsuit against the Yukon government today.

They announced the legal challenge in Vancouver to get the attention of those attending the Mineral Exploration Roundup, one of the country's largest industry gatherings.

Berger, who is best known for his work on the N.W.T.'s Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry in the 1970s, led the news briefing.

Flanked by Na-cho Nyak Dun chief Ed Champion and Tr'ondek Hwech'in chief Eddie Taylor, as well the Yukon Conservation Society's Karen Baltgailis and CPAWS-Yukon's Gill Cracknell, Berger said this is a lawsuit nobody wanted.

But after the Yukon government ditched the Peel commission's land use plan - a plan seven years in the making - and replaced it with its own unilateral blueprint for the region, it crossed the legal line, he said.

The territory's modern-day treaty, the constitutionally-entrenched Umbrella Final Agreement, spells out a process for land use planning that must be followed.

The commission's plan protected most of the watershed from industrial development whereas the plan released by the Yukon government last week opens most of the Peel to mining, oil/gas and roads.

"This is a complete rewrite and it has forced these people to court," said Berger.

Just because the conservative Yukon Party government has a majority, it can't ignore the agreements signed 20 years ago with First Nations and Canada, he said.

The agreements also ensure the public also has a say in planning but the Yukon government has ignored that too, he said.

Although this lawsuit deals with the Peel land plan, it's about much more than that, he said.

It's going to test whether governments are obligated to live up to the modern-day treaties signed across the North, he said.

Although the other two Peel First Nations - the Vuntut Gwitchin and the Gwich'in Tribal Council - were not named in this lawsuit, Champion and Taylor said the four First Nations are united behind this legal challenge.

It's now up to the Yukon government to file its statement of defence.

Berger said it's hard to say how long this case will take to make its way through the courts.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Yukon releases new Peel plan, lifts ban

Despite threats of First Nation lawsuits, the Yukon government has bulled ahead, approving its own Peel watershed land use plan instead of the final recommended plan prepared by an independent commission.

It also lifted a four-year ban on new mineral claims as of Jan. 22.

The Yukon’s new plan welcomes industrial development in most of the 68, wilderness region.

Similar to the blueprint it put forward in late 2012, it designates 27% as integrated management areas and 44% as restricted use wilderness areas, paving the way for mines and roads in both.

The other 29% is labelled as protected areas. Although no new claims will be allowed in these, the existing claims can be worked and temporary roads will be allowed, if required.

The protected areas include the corridors of the Wind, Snake, Hart, Bonnet Plume and Peel River. The corridors vary from two to 10 kilometres in width. A chunk of the upper Hart and Snake are also set aside as protected from new claims.

Most of the southern portion of the region - the most contentious area – falls under the RUWA classification. And even though it’s coloured a light shade of green on the government’s map, it allows for a greater industrial footprint than the lowest IMA zone.

This new plan, developed unilaterally by the government without input from the four Peel First Nations, is markedly different than the commission’s final recommended plan which protected 80% of the watershed.

Although that plan has the backing of the Na-cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Vuntut Gwitchin and Gwich’in Tribal Council, the government decided to ditch it and draw up its own.

The First Nations say that violates the Yukon’s modern day treaty, the Umbrella Final Agreement. The government, on the other hand, insists it has stayed within the letter of the law.

Environmental groups were quick to condemn the government’s new plan released Jan. 21. They called it an affront to democracy and an insult to all who participated in the seven-year, $1.6 million planning process.

They also warned companies to think twice about working in the Peel.

“Companies considering industrial exploration or development in the Peel region do so at their own risk,” said Karen Baltgaillis, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society in a news release. “The tide of public opinion will be against anyone who tries to develop in the region.”

The Yukon NDP criticized the government for choosing the "path of confrontation and litigation." The uncertainty created will be bad for both the economy and the environment, they said.

Click here to see the full plan.

Click here to see the government land use map.