Seven big stories of 2017

From the Peel decision to an earthquake, it was another interesting year in the Yukon

There’s never a dull year in the Yukon. To mark the end of 2017, here’s a look back at some of the biggest news stories of the year.

Peel decision

Years of legal battles over the future of the Peel River Watershed came to a likely end Dec. 1 when the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the Yukon government overstepped its authority with its 2012 land use plan for the mostly pristine New Brunswick-sized chunk of wilderness.

The court ruled the Yukon government violated the Umbrella Final Agreement by making substantial changes to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission’s original recommended plan that put some 80 per cent of the Peel off limits to development.

The ruling, which limited what changes the government could make to the land use plan, was hailed by conservation groups and First Nations as a major victory. The territorial Liberal government has promised to implement the commission’s final recommended plan.

Proponents of development in the Peel were mostly muted in their responses to the decision: The Yukon Chamber of Mines said it is concerned about the amount of land that is off-limits to development, while the Yukon Party, which put forward the 2012 plan while it was still in power, acknowledged “mistakes were made.”

Abuse settlements

In a bombshell story for the Toronto Star, also published in the News, reporter Jesse Winter revealed the Yukon government had been reaching out-of-court settlements with the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of a Whitehorse school principal.

The principal — identified in court documents only as “J.V.” — was convicted in 1987 after he pleaded guilty to sexual assault and indecent assault of five children. Since 2007, at least six other people sued the Yukon government, claiming abuse by J.V. The settlements included non-disclosure conditions.

The territorial government initially said it could not disclose how many sexual abuse cases existed or how much it has spent settling them.

After two weeks of pressure, the government finally acknowledged it has spent roughly $2.5 million to settle 40 abuse cases since 2000. The government has never given a reason for changing its tune and releasing the figures.

Inquiry hearings come to Whitehorse

Whitehorse was the scene of the first public hearings of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in May. About 14 families testified publicly over three emotional days in Whitehorse. Many more gave statements privately.

The families and five commissioners sat in two half circles facing each other. A qulliq lamp was lit in the middle of the room. Cotton blankets — made by women in Saskatoon — lined the walls.

Many who testified spoke about the institutional racism of residential schools and the lack of serious attention to cases by the RCMP. The hearings were about more than remembering the people who weren’t there to speak for themselves. Families were given a chance to make suggestions to the commissioners for how to prevent deaths like these in the future.

Although the inquiry has been plagued by organizational problems — including the November firing of Melissa Carlick, the inquiry’s Whitehorse-based community liaison officer — commissioner Marion Buller told reporters it would return to the Yukon for more hearings.

A brutal year pushes RCMP to the limit

With eight murders from 2017 alone to investigate, a bloody year in the Yukon is pushing RCMP investigators to the limit.

The latest came on Dec. 19 when investigators announced that the case of a Pelly Crossing man, whose body was found Dec. 13, was a homicide. There were also deaths listed as homicides in Carmacks, Riverdale, Porter Creek and Whitehorse’s MacIntyre subdivision. Police have made no arrests in connection with at least five of those deaths.

At one point, police brought in Outside investigators to look into a murder in Whitehorse to take pressure off M Division’s seven-person Major Crime Unit.

Bear deaths

Making it officially a deadly year for the territory’s bears, the territorial government said at least 63 bears were killed in the Yukon as a result of interactions with humans in 2017.

Of the 63 bears, 39 were killed by conservation officers while the remaining 24 were killed by members of the public in defence of life or property. Another 91 bears “moved on” from encounters, while another 10 were relocated by conservation officers.

While some residents have accused conservation officers of being too quick to opt for lethal force, others have pointed to the need for more education for residents to take more care of garbage and compost and have called on the City of Whitehorse to deploy bear-resistant waste containers.

According to the bear statistics, human-made attractants — improperly stored garbage and food and improperly secured chicken coops and pets — remain the leading causes for human-bear conflicts.

Earthquake shakes Yukon

Residents in the southern Yukon were jolted awake when a pair of earthquakes struck the Yukon, B.C. and Alaska May 1.

The first was a magnitude-6.2 quake that hit around 5:30 a.m. The second, 6.3-magnitude quake took place around two hours later

The shaking knocked out power to more than approximately 8,000 residents in the Southern Lakes, Carcross and Tagish areas and some parts of Whitehorse. It also shook merchandise from store shelves in and around Whitehorse.

The quake damaged the Lynn building in downtown Whitehorse and a highway maintenance camp at Blanchard River. Some other schools in Whitehorse were closed for a day as a precaution, while the Lynn building was closed for almost a month while engineers ensured it was safe. The quake also revealed existing damage to the school in Ross River.

Nobody was hurt.

Michael Nehass

After nearly six years in custody — often in segregation — for a 2011 knifepoint assault in Watson Lake, Michael Nehass was released to a psychiatric hospital in Kamloops, B.C.

The move came following a Crown stay of proceedings against Nehass that effectively ended court proceedings on the matter without determining Nehass’ innocence or guilt. The Crown stay can’t be challenged by either the judge or the defence.

Nehass’s lawyer, Anik Morrow, complained the move prevents further examination of the Yukon justice system’s failings in the case: Nehass — who exhibited psychotic behaviour during his time behind bars — tested the ability of the Whitehorse Correctional Centre’s ability to handle inmates with serious mental health issues.

The Yukon government has appointed an independent investigator to look into conditions at WCC.

Nehass, meanwhile, was arrested in northern B.C., and is awaiting a hearing for a peace bond application against him. He is not facing new criminal charges.

With files from Jackie Hong, Ashley Joannou, Lori Fox, Jesse Winter, Sharon Nadeem, Pierre Chauvin and Chris Windeyer

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