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The Peel plan: A simple yes or no question

Imagine a vast mountainous wilderness, an untouched stretch of boreal forest, clean rivers you can drink from, abundant moose, grizzly bears, and waterfowl, great herds of migratory caribou.

Imagine a vast mountainous wilderness, an untouched stretch of boreal forest, clean rivers you can drink from, abundant moose, grizzly bears, and waterfowl, great herds of migratory caribou. That’s the Yukon’s Peel Watershed, 67,000 square kilometres of the most controversial real estate in the country. Under all that natural splendour lies an unknown quantity of mineral wealth, and there has been lengthy debate on which is the more important treasure.

A poll conducted in 2009 found that 75 per cent of respondents wanted to see the Peel protected from mining and exploration. At the same time, First Nations leaders were calling for a staking ban on the entire area. The Peel Watershed Planning Commission released a draft report advocating that 80 per cent of the region be protected from mining. The Yukon Chamber of Mines cried foul, because existing claims would become ‘valueless’ under the proposed regulations.

Two years later the commission has completed its report, still calling for an 80 per cent reserve, though the plan has been modified. Under the new proposal, the reserve land would be divided into a 55 per cent permanent reserve, while the remainder could come under review at a later date. No new roads would be permitted. Heading into a territorial election, the two main opposition parties have endorsed the plan. So has the Yukon Conservation Society. The Yukon Chamber of Mines has expressed disappointment. Only the government is mute.

Pre-election polls suggest that the governing Yukon Party and the New Democrats are running neck-and-neck, with the Liberals trailing far behind. If this election is to be a two-way race, the Peel may turn out to be the defining issue of the campaign.

To be sure, Yukoners identify housing as the most pressing problem facing the territory, and after nine years of Yukon Party government, we are certainly in a housing crunch. Poor and middle-income Yukoners are running out of places to live, and even better-off newcomers are struggling to find homes. But housing is a complex issue, and both parties will struggle to get traction. Promises will be made, and voters will tend to believe the party they already favour.

The issue of the Peel, complex as it may be, has arrived at a point where the question is a simple one: do you support the plan, or don’t you? If the Yukon Party wants to solidify the support of its base in the mining industry, Premier Darrell Pasloski can do so with a single word. On the other hand, he would then risk alienating the great majority of voters. It’s a bit of a political conundrum, and so far, it seems, Pasloski hasn’t solved it.

A couple of weeks ago Pasloski held a public meeting at Mount Lorne, south of Whitehorse, ostensibly to listen to Yukoners’ concerns. There, Blaine Walden, president of the Yukon Wilderness Tourism Association, asked the premier point blank, if your party forms the next government, will it endorse the plan to protect the Peel?

“I’m not going to give you a yes-or-no answer,” said Pasloski, and went on to meander around in a lot of talk about balance and process. Most of it was the kind of meaningless chaff any of us might generate while trying to avoid answering a direct question, but one statement stood out. The premier doesn’t want to talk about the Peel, because he doesn’t want to “politicize” the process.

Since long before Pasloski’s entry into politics, the most popular bumper sticker in the Yukon has read, “Protect the Peel.” The issue has dominated the letters pages of both local papers, and has been the subject of countless editorials, articles, and web pages. In short, it’s much too late to talk about politicizing the Peel. In order for the plan to go ahead, it needs the support of the Yukon government, and anyone running for that office is going to have to take a political position on it.

Pasloski’s in a difficult situation. His biggest financial supporters are mining companies. His base of support favours mining over regulation. But the vast majority of Yukon voters favour the Peel plan, which restricts mining in the region. His rival for the premier’s job, NDP Leader Liz Hanson, has taken a firm position on the Peel. With less than four weeks till election day, will the Yukon Party do the same?

Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon in 2010 and 2002. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.