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Rally in downtown Whitehorse opposes development in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge

Environment minister Pauline Frost, Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis and MP Larry Bagnell were in attendance
Asad Chishti, organizer of the rally to support the conservation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, leads marchers in chants with a mega phone outside the Bank of Montreal in Whitehorse on Aug. 28. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)

A crowd of around 70 people gathered in Whitehorse on Aug. 28 for a noon rally supporting caribou and opposing development of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Yukon Environment Minister Pauline Frost spoke under the healing totem pole, explaining the importance of the Porcupine caribou herd to the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, of which she’s a citizen.

Frost spoke about her family’s history in defending the species from development, and said people in Old Crow are currently preparing for the annual hunt.

“Right now in my homelands, the community is excited for the fall hunt. It provides for them what their bodies need. We are harvesters of the land and we do it with the utmost respect and honour,” she said.

“We’re going to work together, unite with everyone, and protect the caribou. It is truly our lifeblood. We know that the Arctic is changing faster than anywhere else in the world and we want to ensure that we do our part to protect it.”

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area in northeastern Alaska that borders the Yukon, is an important breeding ground for polar bears and is the calving grounds for the Porcupine caribou herd. The species is a key source of food and cultural identity for the Gwich’in.

The U.S. government estimates there are between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels of recoverable oil in the coastal plain area, which covers eight per cent of the total refuge. Sales of oil and gas leases could take place before the end of the year.

In a news release, the interior department said they believe exploration and drilling can be done in a way that “strikes a balance” and preserves the environment while bringing economic benefit to Alaska.

Presidential hopeful Joe Biden opposes oil and gas in the coastal plain area and calls for permanent protection of ANWR, but new legislation might be a slow process and wouldn’t be guaranteed to overrule previously sold leases.

On Aug. 24 the Gwich’in Steering Committee, which represents Gwich’in across the North, joined several environmental groups in a lawsuit aimed at reversing a recent decision by the United States government to allow oil and gas leasing in ANWR.

CPAWS Yukon is the only Canadian non-profit to be involved in the lawsuit.

Executive director Chris Rider spoke after Frost, reiterating how important the campaign to protect the Arctic is.

Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis and MP Larry Bagnell were also in attendance.

“The question I’ve been asking myself is, who speaks for the Porcupine caribou and who listens to the Porcupine caribou? Right now with COVID, it’s tough to show up and show solidarity. But we need to show that there’s enough momentum that even on a rainy day, people will show up,” said rally organizer Asad Chishti.

The rally began at the Main Street Totem Pole before participants walked down Main Street to Second Avenue to chant in front of the Whitehorse TD Canada Trust, CIBC and Bank of Montreal locations.

A campaign is underway to have the banks commit to not investing in projects connected to development in the refuge. While most American banks have agreed to avoid investment, no Canadian banks have released a boycott statement.

“Write to your banks. Tell your banks not to fund these projects,” said Chishti.

Contact Haley Ritchie at