CACHE CREEK, YUKON
Tr’ondek Hwech’in elder Percy Henry wants the Peel River watershed protected, and he’s wearing the T-shirt to prove it.
His mouth curling up in a mischievous grin, Henry proudly unzips his leather jacket to reveal the bright, white shirt that calls for Peel protection in bold, black letters.
Almost 85 years ago to the day, Henry was born south of here, somewhere between the Wind and Hart rivers. His parents, the legendary Joe and Annie Henry, spent much of their lives in the western Peel, known for its abundance of caribou.
Despite his age, Henry said he’s primed to go another round with the Yukon government to conserve this vast wilderness region, as recommended by the Peel Watershed Planning Commission.
This is not a new fight for the former chief. It’s merely an extension of the one he and other Yukon First Nation leaders started nearly 40 years ago.
Henry was part of the group that went to Ottawa in 1973. They presented the historic document, Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow, which kickstarted land claim talks and ultimately the land use planning process.
“This is the same thing – together today for our children tomorrow,” he said, waving his hand toward the campfire, ringed by spruce boughs, as dozens of people gathered to hear what the Peel elders had to say.
They came from Dawson, Mayo, Whitehorse, Old Crow and Fort McPherson to the May 26 gathering, hosted by the Tr’ondek Hwech’in at its camp beside the Dempster Highway.
It’s a natural meeting place. Nestled in the lee of the Ogilvie Mountains and sheltered by tall, thick spruce, this traditional camp sits near the confluence of Cache Creek and the Blackstone River, a major Peel tributary famous for its grayling. To the south lie the treeless plains of the Blackstone Uplands, an area noted for its unusual convergence of caribou from both the Porcupine and Hart river herds.
For Tetlit Gwich’in sisters, Dorothy Alexie, Elizabeth Collins and Mary Jane Moses, this camp holds even more significance because it’s where their grandmother is buried.
Alexie now lives on the lower Peel at Fort McPherson, a mostly Gwich’in community still closely tied to the river for food, water and transportation. Just to get here Alexie’s group had to cross the river in a small boat because the ferry hadn’t started running yet, then pile into a vehicle strategically left on this side to make the long drive down.
Getting together to talk about the Peel is important, she said.
“For us to do something, we all have to work together – the Yukon and the Northwest Territories,” she told the gathering. “We can’t fight. We all have to work together.”
Na-cho Nyak Dun elder Jimmy Johnny has spent more than 50 years travelling through the upper Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume regions, mostly by horseback.
He knows only too well the people downriver in Fort McPherson and beyond, like Alexie, are counting on the Yukon to protect the Peel’s headwaters.
He also knows that’s easier said than done. For years he’s been riding past the debris of abandoned mineral exploration camps.
“One of the biggest messes I’ve seen is up by where Goz and Duo Creek runs into the Bonnet Plume River,” he said.
“I’ve been there. There’s a huge, huge mess. Lots of barrels left behind. Lots of old stuff that needs to be cleaned up.”
Although Yukon government leaders were invited to this meeting, none showed up to hear what the dozen or so elders had to tell. Not one official was sent to take notes.
NDP leader Liz Hanson, four of her MLAs and the Liberal’s Klondike representative, Sandy Silver, did accept the invitation.
They not only listened to the elders, they found out that the Northern Tutchone Council, which includes the Na-cho Nyak Dun, passed a resolution on the Peel watershed last week in Pelly Crossing.
It calls on the government to halt work on its separate Peel land use plan because it has “no legal status” under the Umbrella Final Agreement.
It urges the government to endorse the “legal plan,” which was prepared by the planning commission and supported by a majority of the public.
It also asks the government to get on with the final round of public consultations, which have yet to be announced.
In the meantime, First Nations are preparing to take the Peel dispute to court if they need to go that route, Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor told the gathering.
“We’re waiting on the government to make a decision on what they’re going to do … then we’ll know what we have to do,” said Taylor.
“But I can assure you we’re ready. We’re ready for whatever decision they make.”
Tim Gerberding, who works for the Tr’ondek Hwech’in and the Na-cho Nyak Dun, said the Yukon Party government has violated the land use planning process as laid out in the land claim agreements.
It should have clearly spelled out its concerns about the pro-protection plan when it had the chance in 2010, Gerberding said. Instead, it chose to remain vague about what it didn’t like until it was safely re-elected last October.
When the territory finally did summon the Peel’s four First Nation leaders to meet on Feb. 14 – an important land claims anniversary, especially for the Na-cho Nyak Dun – it dropped the news that it was preparing sweeping changes to the land use plan prepared by the commission.
“But you know what – that’s illegal,” said Gerberding. “That’s against the rules. It’s not playing the game by the rules that were set out in the land claims agreement.”
The government had promised to release more details about its intentions by early April, but “we’re still waiting,” he said.
The government waiting game is nothing new to Percy Henry.
After nearly four decades of land claims wrangling, he’s seen just about every political trick in the book.
Still, he said, this government seems to be particularly difficult to deal with.
“So that’s why we want to be prepared – to try to save what we’ve got,” Henry said to the people huddled around the crackling bonfire.
Pointing to the nearby ridges, Henry told of a time in 1927 when thousands of caribou covered the surrounding mountain sides.
He still holds out hope these mountains will be “thick with caribou” once again if the region gets the protection it deserves.