Caribou pass through the Dempster Highway area in their annual migration. The Vuntut Gwitchin government vowed recently to protect the sacred land against oil exploration. (Justin Kennedy/Yukon News)

Gwich’in vow to stand ground as U.S. pushes closer to drilling in ANWR

‘This is a very important and critical time’

The Vuntut Gwitchin government has vowed to continue to protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) even as a second budget amendment, which would allow oil exploration in the region, passed in the United States Senate Oct. 19.

Gwich’in and environmental activists were alarmed earlier this month by the passing of the first budget amendment. Pro-drilling lobbyists have been trying to open the 1002 Area of ANWR — currently off-limits to oil extraction — since its unofficial inception in 1960.

The 1002 Area is thought to contain 10.2 billion barrels of oil, although that number is only an estimate. It is also home to the calving grounds of the Porcupine caribou herd. Gwich’in consider the calving grounds sacred.

“We are disappointed in the outcome of the vote today but this is only the beginning of a long fight ahead,” Vuntut Gwitchin Chief Bruce Charlie said in an Oct. 20 press release.

“Our mandate from our elders is to permanently protect the sacred calving grounds on the coastal plain of the refuge and we will not stop out fight until that is achieved and our human rights are respected.”

In a phone interview Oct. 23, Charlie said the Vuntut Gwitchin had sent several emails to the Prime Minister’s office and to Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“We had no response,” he said.

But “people are now aware of the (ANWR) voting which has taken place in the U.S. and they want to help,” Charlie said

“We will continue to talk and inform people about ANWR,” he said.

Earlier this year, the Yukon legislature pledged its support to the Vuntut Gwich’in in its fight to protect the Porcupine caribou calving grounds. In the legislative assembly Oct. 24, Premier Sandy Silver called the push for drilling in ANWR “troubling news.”

“I would like to take time today to reaffirm the long standing commitment of this assembly. We support the protection of the Porcupine caribou herd calving grounds.… We are adamantly opposed to ANWR being opened up for drilling,” he said.

“Senator Lisa Murkowski is the architect of the current challenge to ANWR and she has estimated drilling is still many years away,” Silver said. “This does not provide comfort, as we do not believe the area should be open at all, and will continue to fight to keep the Porcupine caribou calving grounds protected.”

Silver said the government is giving $50,000 to the Vuntut Gwitchin lobbying effort and said the legislature was drafting a letter to Minister of Environment Catherine McKenna to “reaffirm” their support.

Silver pledged the government would use “every opportunity available,” to stop exploration in ANWR. All three parties are opposed to drilling there.

Although both Canada and the U.S. have obligations under the 1987 International Porcupine Caribou Agreement, the decision to drill in the region is ultimately up to the U.S.

The government of the Northwest Territories has expressed similar support, said Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, Grand Chief of the Gwich’in Tribal Council.

“It’s a very important and critical time,” she said.

Both Charlie and Greenland-Morgan said Gwich’in from both sides of the border are planning to meet in Fairbanks Nov. 8 to Nov. 10, although Charlie notes these dates are still tentative.

“The purpose of this meeting will be to gather as many Gwich’in leaders as can make it,” Greenland Morgan said. “We need to regroup and decide a new approach and what our strategy is.”

With files from Ashley Joannou

Contact Lori Fox at lori.fox@yukon-news.com

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