The Peel is Banff before rails and roads

Bear Creek splits into two channels as it passes around a hill and enters the Wind River, and in turn the Peel. We once camped beneath the hill and climbed its slopes in time to catch the day's final bursts of sunlight.

by Bob Jickling

Bear Creek splits into two channels as it passes around a hill and enters the Wind River, and in turn the Peel. We once camped beneath the hill and climbed its slopes in time to catch the day’s final bursts of sunlight.

Distant peaks glowed in alpine hues, gilded first, then pink, and finally rhubarb. That evening, I glimpsed a scene reminiscent of other iconic Canadian landscapes. This was Banff before rail and roads, before grizzlies tangled with trains. There aren’t many places left that hold all the values inherent in the mid-nineteenth century Rockies. The Peel River watershed does.

Canadians have experienced campaigns to protect special places. They are often remote; most supporters will never visit them. But it matters that they exist.

In a world that often feels on the brink of catastrophe – democratic failures, fiscal cliffs, international conflicts, climate change, biodiversity loss – the Peel watershed offers an oasis. If we find ways to protect it, perhaps we can make other parts of our lives ecologically and culturally sustainable.

When balancing environmental, social, and economic interests, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission says, “Simple logic dictates that this is better thought of as an optimization of these values, recognizing that sustaining the ecosystem is fundamental. This is readily understood when you consider the reverse: if we fail to sustain the ecosystem, we have no basis for a sustainable society, nor for a sustainable economy.” Refreshing.

Arriving at the sanity offered by the planning commission’s logic requires myth busting.

The Yukon government says it wants more balance. This is false. Here, balance invites contrariness, and makes no distinction between critics and cynics. It’s code for, “I’m not getting my way.” In practice, it means, “I’ll write my own plan and begin new consultations.”

A better evaluation is to ask: Has this work engaged a sufficient breadth of actors, interests, and expertise in order to make an informed judgement? The planning commission has consulted resource specialists, elders, land users, the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, the Tr’ondek Hwech’in, the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, the Gwich’in Tribal Council, the Yukon government, a host of other informed people, and the general public.

From these consultations the commission developed the draft recommended plan, which was used as a basis for further consultations. Commissioners travelled to communities. They held meetings and workshops with First Nations, the Yukon government and the general public. They gathered feedback through online surveys and written submissions. Over more than six years, the breadth of consultation and perspective is impeccable.

Democracy is richest when citizens participate in on-going decision making. Democratic practice becomes a way of living together where individuals take part in civic processes, debates, and responsible consideration of their actions. In doing this they break down barriers of class, race, and jurisdiction. Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement provides institutional requirements – such as the planning commission – that enable these processes.

Recently, my interest in Yukon land claims was rekindled by a talk given by the Aga Khan. As leader of the Ismaili people, he understands the experiences of smaller groups living in larger societies, and challenges faced by fledgling democracies, particularly in Central Asia. For him, an essential democratic requisite is a healthy civil society that provides citizens with multiple channels to exercise their rights and duties of citizenship.

The Umbrella Final Agreement mandates constructive engagement. It is not just for First Nation people – these are channels of participation for everyone.

Analysis of public submissions places backing for the commission’s plan at about 75 per cent. It is understood that in public commentary, there is a multiplier effect. One written submission, like one signature on a petition, is equivalent to many more people with similar opinions. By such measures, the majority of Yukoners want the planning commission’s recommendations accepted.

Harder to evaluate is the damage done by the Yukon government’s decision to reject the planning commission’s work. There have been more than six years of presentations, workshops, and community meetings. These have generated public discussions and conversations around kitchen tables and campfires across the Yukon and neighbouring N.W.T. communities. Together, this represents healthy democratic processes in action – enabling civil society as envisioned in the UFA.

In writing its own management plan, the Yukon government is undermining the intent and the letter of this agreement, and all participants in the Peel watershed planning process. It is also undermining civil society – making the Yukon less civil. This comes from a government that only received 40.4 per cent of the vote.

Like the First Nations, I prefer 100 per cent protection of the Peel watershed. But, also like these First Nations, I respect the work of the planning commission and their efforts to accommodate and compromise in the final plan. It calls for 80 per cent protection. This watershed is critically important to its people, and to Yukoners. By placing sustainable ecosystems at the core of its logic, this plan models a sanity that can inspire future planning.

I urge the Yukon government to accept the final plan. If it does not, and First Nations take them to court, I’m hoping that 100 per cent protection of the watershed will be back on the table. That would be one small consolation for the wretched destruction of a finely executed process.

Bob Jickling is a Whitehorse resident. He has been a regular visitor to the Peel watershed for more than 30 years.