At a Peel Watershed public meeting Wednesday night, many in attendance expressed frustration that they were still being asked for their opinion.
“I understand that when we’re into challenging decisions governments – both YTG and First Nations – want to go slow and easy, but we’re very heavily governed here in the Yukon,” said John Streicker, a federal Green party candidate who spoke strictly as a citizen.
“When things are clear, we could move things along faster,” he said.
After five years of research by an arm’s-length commission, and multiple public hearings, a consensus was apparent at Wednesday’s meeting. There was almost unanimous support for protecting the Peel. The four First Nation governments – which are negotiating with the Yukon government over the Peel – strongly endorse protection. So do tourism operators, outfitters and a vast majority of people who attended the public hearing.
“It’s wonderful to get everyone’s views, but once it’s done, let’s move on,” said Streicker.
The only holdout is the mining lobby. Though the Chamber of Mines has waged a passionate defence of its interests in the past, prospectors were not out in full force on Wednesday.
Streicker wonders whether the failure to make a decision is hurting social unity in the Yukon and further splitting citizens into two camps.
“I worry – when it drags out this long – about it being so divisive,” he said.
The only other group not calling for protection is the Yukon government. It has refrained from endorsing conservation or industrial development in order to remain impartial.
But Noel Sinclair, another speaker at Wednesday’s meeting, was suspicious of the Yukon government’s neutral position when everyone around it, except for miners, is calling for more reflection on the Peel.
“I find it troubling and curious (the government keeps putting off its decision),” said Sinclair.
And the government hasn’t even followed its own rules.
Premier Dennis Fentie was caught suppressing a pro-conservation document issued by the Environment Department and intended for the arm’s-length commission. While initially refusing to comment on his actions, he eventually declared that he was obliged under the Umbrella Final Agreement – the legal document that authorizes the land-use plan – to interfere.
Despite the interference, the commission ended up calling for the 80 per cent protection of the watershed, a 68,000-square-kilometre region. The current round of public consultations is intended to complement the negotiations between the Yukon government and four First Nation governments – the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin and the Gwich’in Tribal Council.
All four First Nation governments have vocally called for complete protection of the Peel.
Because they’ve been so unambiguous, one First Nation expressed vexation at why a decision still hasn’t been made.
“Too many times industry has tried and did develop areas and walked away,” said Joe Tetlichi, who spent the first 20 years of his life living a traditional lifestyle on the Peel River in northern Yukon.
“For a long time, we didn’t have a say,” he said.
“And it seems like even after land claims, we’re still being challenged.
“When is it going to stop? When are people going to start saying, ‘Let the aboriginal people alone, let them practise their traditional culture.’ So that we can protect the land and the water for our grandchildren?’”
In the last few decades, First Nations put a lot of faith in land claim agreements as a way to finally have power over policy in the Yukon, said Shirlee Frost, who was chair of the North Yukon land-use planning commission.
“The (Alaska) Highway came, Dawson City happened with the Gold Rush in 1889, all the mining companies – they came, they took, they destroyed and then they left,” she said.
The final agreements were supposed to change all that, and if the region isn’t protected, First Nations will feel especially slighted.
“I don’t think it would be a very nice feeling,” said Frost.
“If they do open it up, I think we’d be doing a lot of praying and asking our ancestors for a lot of forgiveness,” she said.
“And asking our children of future generations to forgive us also.”
The negotiations between the governments are supposed to be completed by December.
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