Peel protesters shut down legislature

The Yukon legislature was shut down this week. By a bunch of kids. Sitting in the legislature's gallery on Wednesday, the Peel Youth Alliance waited quietly for question period.

The Yukon legislature was shut down this week.

By a bunch of kids.

Sitting in the legislature’s gallery on Wednesday, the Peel Youth Alliance waited quietly for question period.

The NDP Leader, Liz Hanson, began criticizing comparisons made between the Peel River watershed and the North Yukon by the Yukon Party’s minister of Energy, Mines and Resources, Brad Cathers.

The North Yukon is the only region in the territory to have a signed land-use plan and, apart from Old Crow, it is largely uninhabited and hasn’t been widely explored by either mining or tourism industries.

With a few looks and nods, the youth stood up and unraveled a series of banners that read “Our land. Our plan. Our government??”

Speaker David Laxton told the youth their signs were not allowed and asked them to put them down.

They didn’t.

Laxton’s heavy breathing, broadcast by the room’s speaker system, was the only thing breaking the tense silence.

“Take them down, now,” he said again.

They didn’t.

Laxton sighed deeply. He called over the clerk and, after a few whispers, asked all MLAs to leave.

The youth, banners high, didn’t move.

Cabinet and Laxton exited out back, while the Liberals and NDP left out front.

Some opposition MLAs smiled and winked at protesters as they passed under the gallery. Jim Tredger, the NDP’s MLA for Mayo-Tatchun, gave a thumbs-up.

Then the protestors quietly folded up their banners and filed out of the empty legislature.

“We would rather not have been there today to do such a direct and imposing action but the Yukon government is systematically avoiding public will and the voices of Yukoners and we’re not about to just sit back and let them do this,” said Cassy Andrew, 20, outside the government’s main administration building.

The group has written multiple letters and has requested meetings with the premier and Cathers. They received no written responses, and were told they can’t be fit into busy schedules just yet.

The youth alliance postponed the banner unraveling by one day.

The action was initially planned for Tuesday, but the gallery was filled with mining industry supporters that day. They were there to hear tributes to former pilot and miner John Witham, and to geologist Jim McFaull, who passed away April 14.

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This last week of the legislature’s spring sitting was Yukon Mining and Geology Week. The sitting started and ended with debates over the fate of the Peel.

As the sitting wrapped up on Thursday, the gallery was filled again by the same protest that filled it on opening day.

A second security guard was called in, and the gallery quickly reached capacity. Most attendees wore white T-shirts bearing the slogan, “Protect democracy, the plan, the Peel.”

The group first gathered outside the government’s main administration building before entering the gallery, as they did in March.

Some had their faces painted with water-drop tears. More than 20 people addressed the crowd, including Nacho-Nyak Dun elder Jimmy Johnny who had driven in from Mayo that morning.

Inside the legislature, question period again turned to the Peel.

Cathers pointed out the polarization of the issue by noting that Tuesday saw the gallery filled with people who supported the government’s dismissal of the proposed land-use plan, which was supported by the four affected First Nation governments and called for 80 per cent of the Scotland-sized swath to be protected.

The gallery wasn’t full on Tuesday, however.

Cathers denied the NDP’s allegations that his party flouted the land-use planning process by not conducting the final round of consultation in time. Changing the plan now is part of the government’s obligations, he said.

Cathers also rebutted Hanson’s claims that he said the Peel Watershed Planning Commission didn’t do a good job.

Instead, he said Yukoners expected more balance, Cathers told the legislature.

The gallery booed, while cabinet ministers rapping their desks in support.

Outside, the commission’s chair shook his head.

“I think Mr. Cathers is dead wrong,” said Dave Loeks. “I don’t see how he would strike a different balance and make people feel as though their interests were protected.”

If the government had concerns with how the commission was doing the planning, it should have raised them long ago, he said.

“It was incumbent upon the Yukon government to make that concern known at a time when it was right to influence the plan,” said Loeks. “It never did.”

“The term ‘balanced,’ by the way, is a marvelously undefined term. What does balanced mean? From our point of view we struck a very good balance because we had a majority of society saying no industrial development whatsoever. Twenty per cent of the land, particularly adjacent to the oil and gas showings, was opened to industrial development and all claims, no matter where they were, remained open for development. The only caveat was that it had to be air access – which is all they’ve ever had.”

Premier Darrell Pasloski announced last month that the final round of planning consultations would be held sometime this spring. When pressed by reporters for more details on Thursday, he would only say the meetings would happen “soon.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

roxannes@yukon-news.com

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