It doesn’t seem to matter where the Yukon government sets up its Peel consultation shop, the message it receives is pretty much the same.
Protect the watershed. Accept the final recommended land use plan. Take the “concepts” off the table.
Here on Thursday it was no different. Once the people got to speak, that is.
As in Mayo and Dawson, Old Crow and Tsiigehtchic, the First Nations had to do a little arm twisting, so to speak, before the government agreed to turn its open house into an impromptu public meeting. But each time it seems to put up less of a fight.
All it took was a request from the Gwich’in Tribal Council and the bureaucrats lined up two rows of chairs and patiently waited for president Robert Alexie Jr. and his delegation to arrive.
Based in Inuvik, the council represents Gwich’in from Inuvik, Fort McPherson, Aklavik and Tsiigehtchic.
When they did, Alexie first took the opportunity to give them a bit of a history lesson.
He told them about his family ties to the Yukon’s Blackstone area, his peoples’ ties to the Peel headwaters and his nation’s ties to the land, stretching from Alaska through the Yukon to the Northwest Territories.
“When I pass through the Blackstone River valley, I’m reminded that this is where my dad (Walter Alexie) was born; this is where my grandparents lived; this is where my people come from,” he said.
That’s also why the Gwich’in land claim agreement, finalized in 1992, includes land in the Yukon.
He said they already have a land use plan for the N.W.T. part of their settlement area. Now they’re waiting for the Peel plan to cover off their Yukon lands.
The Gwich’in had a seat on the Peel commission and they were satisfied with the plan it produced.
“Then, for whatever reason that’s beyond our comprehension, the Yukon government took it upon themselves to modify and rewrite the plan in isolation from the other members of the commission,” said Alexie.
That’s “disturbing,” he said. And it goes against the spirit and intent of not only their land claim agreement but also the mandate of the Peel commission.
But it’s not too late for the Yukon government “to do the right thing: withdraw your plan and publicly support the original plan as developed by the commission,” he said.
That plan protects 80 per cent of the watershed and leaves the other 20 per cent open for development.
The Gwich’in can live with that, Alexie said. They realize there is a need for some development.
“But some day – maybe 100 years or 1,000 or 10,000 years from now – someone, maybe a Gwich’in, maybe one of your own descendents, may climb a mountain and look down on the land and give thanks to their ancestors for protecting the Peel,” he said. “Or they may look down and wonder what happened.”
A few seats down, his uncle, Robert Alexie Sr., who has spent years speaking about the Peel, nodded in agreement.
The Tetlit Gwich’in elder made the trip from Fort McPherson because the government cancelled the meeting it was supposed to hold there on Wednesday, saying it was too cold for its workers to travel.
One of his main concerns is keeping the Peel River free from contamination.
The people of Fort McPherson still rely on fish from the river, just as they always have, he said.
As soon as the ice goes out, the fish nets go in. “That’s our meal all summer,” he said.
Visitors to the region also prize the region’s pristine condition. The most common comment he hears from tourists is “leave it as it is, untouched,” he said.
Abe Wilson, who also made the trip from McPherson to speak, wanted to remind the government the final recommended plan is based on the knowledge of the elders.
To dismiss it would be an insult, he said. Especially after First Nations participated in the planning process in good faith.
He said if the Yukon government doesn’t soon change its course, the conflict over the Peel plan will be headed straight to court.
Tetlit Gwich’in chief William Koe and the chief of the Inuvik Gwich’in, Herbert Blake, also urged the Yukon to take its “new plan” off the table and accept the one prepared by the commission.
Sarah Jerome, whose family comes from the Road River area, just south of McPherson, told the meeting she wants the Peel watershed protected for her children and her grandchildren.
“For their sake I will idle no more,” she said.
The government is trying to reschedule another meeting for Fort McPherson, but no date has yet been set.
That will be the last in its string of community meetings. It’ll accept written comments on the plan until Feb. 25.