It’s time to guarantee space for the rest of us, and our dreams

There isn't much of our small and crowded planet that isn't trodden by the heavy footprint of development. But there are some places, including the Peel River Watershed, that remain more-or-less intact.

There isn’t much of our small and crowded planet that isn’t trodden by the heavy footprint of development. But there are some places, including the Peel River Watershed, that remain more-or-less intact.

Many say that we have a responsibility to protect this place for our own benefit, for future generations, for biodiversity and for the intrinsic value of wilderness.

Yukoners support the Planning Commission’s efforts to protect 50 per cent of the Peel Watershed, including the entire Wind, Snake, Bonnet Plume and Hart rivers.

The commission’s figures indicate that 94 per cent of Yukoners favour the commission’s second scenario, and with it large multi-watershed protection.

The Yukon Environment Act begins by acknowledging that our way of life is founded on an economic, cultural, esthetic, and spiritual relationship with the land. In doing so, it clearly outlines a range of values that shape our relationships with Yukon’s environment. And, all planning decisions are essentially about weighing the merits of contesting values.

Because economic values other than mining are at stake, and because cultural, esthetic and spiritual values are important, I support the second scenario—as a minimum. But, I also urge the commission to protect yet more of the Peel Watershed from all types of roads and development. Even Scenario 2 underrepresents Yukoners’ desire for protection.

I stress several considerations.

First, people supporting watershed protection aren’t just a small group of canoeing elite. There is a broad range of concern.

Some have alternative economic interests—outfitting, wilderness guiding, and trapping. There is a domestic economy that involves hunting, fishing, and clean water. And others—for a variety of cultural, spiritual, and esthetic reasons—don’t believe that we should chop down and dig up everything that will make a buck.

For many of these folks it is enough to just know that complete ecosystems are left intact—in at least a few special places like the Peel River Watershed.

Second, we don’t owe the mining industry special consideration because of exploration investments.

Their advantage already lies in the Quartz Mining Act that allows staking to pre-empt other interests. Prospectors can stake claims and mine for minerals. But others cannot stake claims to support a small business, a lifestyle or a special place. This free-entry system is a privilege, like bonuses given to Wall Street bankers.

But in Yukon wilderness, as on Wall Street, we can’t afford it any more. Wilderness is shrinking too quickly. It is troubling that some see these bonuses as entitlements.

Remember staking debacles—in the Tombstones, on the Whitehorse cross-country trails, and even on private land. Now there is a staking rush in the Peel River Watershed and this frustrates land planning. It may be legal, but it’s not democratic.

If the planning commission’s work is to be a democratic exercise it has a responsibility to reject assumptions of entitlement. It is the will of the people who have spoken overwhelmingly in favour of protecting the Peel Watershed that is important.

The Quartz Mining Act must be revised and the free-entry provisions eliminated.

In the meantime, the planning commission should recommend removal of the Peel Watershed from further staking until the planning process is resolved.

Third, the commission should err in favour of protection as a precautionary measure. It isn’t news that taxpayers pay a fortune to bail out mining disasters. Faro comes to mind.

However, in the early 1990s we were told that mining doesn’t operate like that any more. Faro was “yesterday’s mine.”

Wrong.

In 1999, Justice Lillies convicted BYG of three charges related to the abuse of a water licence and stated in his judgment that “the above examples demonstrate an attitude consistent with ‘raping and pillaging’ the resources of the Yukon … There is little evidence of any diligence.”

He went on to describe BYG as “inept, bumbling, amateurish and possibly negligent.”

Continued legal challenges have been required to hold mining companies and their principals responsible for indiscretions.

In 2007, the Yukon Supreme Court granted the Canadian government leave to pursue the “oppression remedy” to “pierce the corporate veil” in order to hold perpetrators of bad mining practices responsible for their actions, even when operating under different corporate names.

A Federal Court Ruling in April 2009 now forces Environment Canada to collect from mining companies, and divulge to the public, the amount of toxic compounds in tailings and waste rocks found around every mine in the country. In closing this loophole in federal environmental right-to-know legislation, reporting is predicted to show that mining waste is the single largest source of industrial pollution in Canada.

In spite of improvements in environmental monitoring and reclamation, and the diligence of Yukon operators, there is still uncertainty about the harmful effects of mining. Moreover, critical decisions are often made in Vancouver, Toronto, and increasingly China where proponents have no affinity for the Yukon.

Until legislation and legal precedent demonstrate that polluters will be held financially responsible for the mess they leave behind, we cannot assume that mining in the Peel Watershed will be conducted in a responsible and safe way. And, given it is doubtful that uranium mining can ever be conducted safely, the prudent option is to favour greater protection.

Finally, the planning commission must resist interference and bullying by Premier Dennis Fentie.

In response to allegations of political interference, Fentie insisted that in democratic processes deputy ministers serve at the pleasure of the premier’s office—an apparent justification for gutting a government technical document.

However, censorship of information is not part of these same democratic processes.

We can expect a carefully worded disclaimer from senior government bureaucrats. However, I’d prefer they didn’t assume that Yukoners are stupid. We know that recommendations for protection will, in the end, stem from the land-use planning process. Commission members can evaluate all the material from a wide range of sources and make their own decisions.

Technical information provided by our government doesn’t pre-empt this process. The commission should demand the full text of the technical information, using access to information legislation if needed.

Planning responsibilities transcend Fentie’s short-term legislative mandate.

The only way to deal with bullies is to stand up to them.

This takes some courage, but the overwhelming majority of Yukoners are with the commission.

Protecting the Peel Watershed will not end mining in the Yukon, nor should it.

It will, however, allow room for the rest of us to realize some of our dreams too.

Bob Jickling is an associate

professor at Lakehead University and a longtime outdoor enthusiast.

He lives in Whitehorse.

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