FORT MCPHERSON, N.W.T.
In a community where you’ll find Protect the Peel stickers on everything from playground equipment to coffee mugs and ball caps to garbage can stands, it seemed perfectly natural that a meeting on the watershed’s future would attract a standing-room-only crowd.
The town of 850 – mostly Tetlit Gwich’in who are originally from the headwaters – is, after all, the only settlement in the entire transboundary region.
Perched on the banks of the lower Peel, fish camps still dot the shoreline at the Dempster ferry crossing and the river still serves as a highway – summer and winter – for hunters and others who want to get out on the land.
So when six Yukon government officials arrived here by charter plane from Whitehorse Tuesday, they shouldn’t have been surprised to find the community hall walls already plastered with student artwork on the Peel, leaving little room for their land-use planning maps.
Nor was there any debate about whether the four-hour event would be an open house or a public meeting.
Rows of chairs had already been set out and by the time the bureaucrats established their “information stations” and enjoyed the community lunch, more than 200 people had filed into the hall and taken a seat.
With Tetlit Gwich’in First Nation official Diane Koe serving as MC, they listened as speaker after speaker stepped up to the microphone – young and old alike – to talk about the Peel and their relationship to it.
Seventy-two-year-old Bertha Francis had walked several blocks, with the help of her cane, for the chance to tell the Yukon government what the watershed means to her.
Born at Royal Mountain in the Wind River valley and raised further north, in the Road River area, she’s seen the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
The mess left behind by Shell Oil at Caribou River and the government’s initial reluctance to help the community clean it up remains burned in her memory.
That should never be allowed to happen again, she said.
“We’re asking, we’re pleading to you, to talk for us, so that nothing happens in the Peel River. We depend on it,” Francis said.
“Please, please, listen to our people… I really believe that if we keep that area good and clean our people are going to live good… I’m saying this from my heart – hear me please.”
Her sister, Mary Teya, is the town’s Anglican minister and head of the elders’ council.
Through her travels, she’s met people who live with the toxic legacy of northern Alberta’s tarsands.
“They told me the companies have the money and once they start development there’s no stopping it,” she said.
The Yukon government needs to work with First Nations to ensure that doesn’t happen in the Peel.
“We want a working relationship with everyone,” she said. “In time, we will have to work together.”
To Kyla Ross, a young woman with deep family roots in the Yukon portion of the Peel, preserving the region and all it represents to the Gwich’in is worth more than all the money in the world.
Although she recognizes there’s a need for industry, she knows there’s also a need for clean water and air and healthy plants, animals and people.
“I support the plan made by the Peel watershed planning commission. I support 80 per cent protection,” she said.
“I don’t support fracking. I don’t support hydro-electric dams or development of any kind. I don’t support road access in the Peel River watershed. And I don’t support this new plan made by the Yukon government.”
Ross also read a statement from the Tetlit Gwich’in Renewable Resource Council, of which she is a member.
It’s disappointed and alarmed the Yukon government has pushed aside the Peel commission’s plan after years of collaboration.
The government’s new proposals “do not reflect any feedback that was given all those years,” it said.
The only plan it’s prepared to discuss or accept “is the one we helped create – the Peel planning commission’s final plan.”
Accepting that plan would be a feather in the Yukon’s cap, it said. The territory would be recognized, at home and abroad, as “responsible and forward-thinking.”
Elder Elizabeth Collins didn’t have a statement per se, but after listening to nearly 20 other speakers, she did have a question.
“Is it (Fort McPherson) going to be listened to or are they (Yukon government) just going to go ahead and do what they’re going to do?”
Nobody from the government stepped up to answer.
This was the last meeting in the series of community meeting the government’s had about the Peel plan.
It was supposed visit McPherson last month but cancelled at the last minute, saying it was too cold for its workers to drive from Inuvik.
Said Diane Koe: “If they can’t travel in those conditions, how do they expect to develop up there (in the Peel) when it’s 70 below? They’ll all freeze on the spot.”
The public has until Feb. 25 to submit written comments on the Peel plan.