Backlash grows against Peel proposal

Condemnation continues to be heaped upon the Yukon Party government, following last week's announcement that it wants to leave much of the Peel River watershed open to development.

Condemnation continues to be heaped upon the Yukon Party government, following last week’s announcement that it wants to leave much of the Peel River watershed open to development.

Hunting outfitters and the Yukon Liberal Party entered the fray this week, joining First Nation chiefs, the NDP and conservationists in denouncing the government’s stance on the Peel.

Criticism continues to centre on the government’s decision to unveil its position now instead of during the territorial election last October.

“It’s basically railroading the demographic process,” said Chris Widrig, who has led horseback hunting trips in the upper Snake and Bonnet Plume rivers region for 26 years.

“They should have come out with these principles right at the beginning. That would have been the honest thing to do,” Widrig said.

The government has framed its position as a matter of fairness: no single group should be excluded from the region, including miners.

An advertising blitz launched by the territory is now promising to find “balance” between competing interests in the area.

“This is propaganda,” said Sandy Silver, Liberal MLA for the Klondike. “You’re misleading the public. And you’re doing it with their money.”

Chiefs, who say they were “blindsided” by the government’s announcement, warn that the current course will end in a protracted court battle.

During the recent election, Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski said it would be “irresponsible” for him to take a position on the Peel without first allowing a final round of public consultation.

“We still haven’t held the public consultation and now it’s OK to float this?” asked David Loeks, chair of the Peel planning commission. “I think it’s dishonest.”

The territory had five years to air its concerns while planning was underway, said Loeks. It chose not to.

It could have done so early on when the commission announced it would put a big emphasis on preserving wilderness and the region’s ecological integrity.

“They accepted that and they never said otherwise,” said Loeks.

Or it could have done so later on when it received a draft Peel plan, one which ended up being similar to the final plan to protect four-fifths of the watershed.

The territory did offer vague criticism then that the plan didn’t allow for greater development. But it never spelled out which areas it wanted open to industry or why.

Now the government risks running afoul of the Umbrella Final Agreement struck with Yukon’s First Nations. The Peel plan is a product of this legally-binding agreement and trying to dramatically revise the plan at this late stage may be seen as bargaining in bad faith.

The government’s new scheme may also be seen as contrary to a deal signed with First Nations in January 2011, which vowed to take a “collaborative approach” towards reaching a final decision.

The Yukon Party’s smoothly worded advertisements for its Peel push are “subtle, sophisticated, cynical and manipulative,” said Loeks.

“This meets all the criteria of Orwell’s doublespeak. Creating a wide-open environment for mining is protecting the Peel. Turning over Chapter 11 of the Umbrella Final Agreement is respecting First Nation agreements.

“These ads should have been run with the Yukon Party logo on them and paid out of their coffers. This is a political ad. Or it should have been run by the Yukon Chamber of Mines.”

Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Brad Cathers has indicated that protected areas would likely include an area where the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume rivers dump into the Peel, as well as the Turner Lake wetlands. Beyond that, there are few details.

To keep ecosystems intact, “you actually need very clear protection for larger chunks,” said Loeks. “Otherwise, you don’t accomplish much.”

Cathers compares the government’s Peel approach to the one used to craft a land-use plan for northern Yukon. Under that plan, industry isn’t banned, but it’s expected to take pains to lessen its impact on the environment.

What that overlooks, said Loeks, is that contentious areas in northern Yukon were already protected by the time land-use talks got underway.

The government’s aim to broker a compromise for the Peel also rings hollow in Widrig’s ears. Wilderness tourism and mining don’t mix.

“Mineral exploration companies scar the landscape,” he said. “They change the face of wilderness with their diamond drills, bulldozers, helicopters, red flagging and claim posts. It’s not an open-pit mine, but it still changes the characteristics of what’s there now.”

Already, “All the way from Mayo to the border of the Peel watershed … everything’s staked,” said Widrig. “They’re just waiting there with their bulldozers to get across the border.”

He disputes Cathers’ claim that the territory wants to merely modify, rather than reject, the recommended plan.

“They’re basically killing the plan. If those principles had been put there at the beginning, it would have been a completely different plan. And that would have been fine, if it was reached through a democratic process.

“It would have been more honest for the Yukon Party to just say, ‘We totally reject the plan and are starting again from scratch.’”

Loeks agrees.

“Why don’t we just skip the step of the planning commission and let governments and bureaucrats do our planning for us?” he asked. “Planning cannot work unless everyone is open and above board.”

The government hasn’t bargained in good faith, said Silver. “They were listening with deaf ears,” he said. “This is a huge slap in the face to First Nation governments.”

If talks fall apart, most of the Peel remains Crown land. That means it’s up to the territory to regulate industry there as it sees fit.

But a legal challenge could block mining in the region for many years, said Loeks. “If they’re looking for certainty for the mining industry, they’re going about it in a pretty weird way.”

On Friday, chiefs of the region sent a legal notice to territorial officials, said Chief Simon Mervyn, of the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun.

“Either way the argument spins, there will be court involved – unless they come to terms with working collaboratively with First Nations, as per the expectations of the final agreements,” he said, speaking on behalf of the group, which also includes the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin and the Gwich’in Tribal Council.

“We’ll wait patiently and tie our dogs firmly to the tree. But when it’s time to go, we’ll untie them and hit the trail.”

– With notes from Roxanne Stasyszyn.

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