The water rite

Would you flick a cigarette on your dinner plate? It's a question Carl Sidney has to ask people far too often. But he doesn't ask it while sitting around a kitchen table. Instead, he does it while standing beside the Yukon River.

Would you flick a cigarette on your dinner plate?

It’s a question Carl Sidney has to ask people far too often.

But he doesn’t ask it while sitting around a kitchen table. Instead, he does it while standing beside the Yukon River.

Now, the chairman of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council – a grassroots organization made up of 70 tribes and First Nations along the Yukon River – wants aboriginal water rights airtight, so he can have a strong legal backing when asking that same question in the future.

Sidney admits aboriginal people used to be among the worst polluters of the river.

“Out of sight, out of mind, that’s what everybody always thought,” he said. “But I think they’ve learned, since then.”

Now, aboriginal people are the key to clean, free water for everyone, he added.

“We live on it. We live beside it. It’s part of us. It’s part of our life. We come from the land and the water.”

The council has been working towards its goal of a Yukon River clean enough to drink, from the headwaters to the tributaries, for 14 years.

And, until now, it has made the conscious effort to keep the fight outside of the courtroom, said director Jon Waterhouse.

“We always kept it in the back of our minds that sooner or later, someday, this day’s going to come,” said Waterhouse. “I guess that day has arrived.”

Waterhouse jumped on a plane from the council’s headquarters in Anchorage, Alaska, to Portland, Oregon, Tuesday to meet with the team of lawyers working on defining aboriginal water rights in Canada and the United States.

It was the same group of lawyers that offered a presentation on what rights currently exist in both countries, at the council’s biennial summit in Ruby, Alaska, at the beginning of this month.

The good news is aboriginal water rights do exist – in both Canada and the United States.

The bad news is they have never been really defined or asserted by aboriginal people – not enough to win a case in court at least, said Waterhouse.

And while Yukon First Nations are blazing the trail with their final agreements and the establishment of the Yukon Water Board, there is still a lot of ambiguous language to wade through before aboriginal groups can be assured they’ve found solid bottom to stand on.

For example, Canada’s Constitution assures aboriginal people they can use the land for “traditional practices,” but doesn’t explicitly define what those practices are, how much land they will need and whether or not they can force other people off the land to do so.

Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement gets more specific, actually guaranteeing the water quantity, quality and flow won’t “substantially” change. But what does “substantially” mean?

The United States retains a more paternal approach to aboriginal water rights.

When the farrago of acts, doctrines and case law is boiled down, they say Alaskan Indians are supposed to have enough water for traditional practices, but it is up to Washington to provide that water.

The past 14 years of water monitoring the council has done, along with the United States Geological Survey, should help in defining the quality, quantity and flow aboriginal people have a right to.

Already, the council has established a 10-year, quality baseline for the Yukon River, said Waterhouse.

And aside from getting a little bit warmer, the council hasn’t witnessed the quality of the river’s water degrade over the years, he said.

So the hope is to keep things as they are now – or cleaner.

Which is happening, said Waterhouse, noting the new sewage plant in Dawson City and even more work in Alaska.

But the council should not be mistaken for an environmental group, said Waterhouse.

“Heck, some of our in-charge First Nations are development orientated,” he said. “But as we push ahead with any kind of development, does it always have to be the bottom line’s the buck? I don’t think so. I think the bottom line should be the people, and taking care of the people.

“If we have to have development in the future, that’s fine. But if you build the conservation in on the front end of your plan, rather than after the disaster happens, I think the two can live together.

“With native people, I think a lot of people might get a mistake calling us environmentalists. I mean heck, we eat the animals and we burn the wood in our fireplaces, I mean c’mon, we use the resources. But conscious use of those resources is what we’re looking for.”

And the Yukon River is a jewel of a resource, said Waterhouse.

He’s been to rivers in Russia and the Amazon and nothing compares to the Yukon, he said.

Sidney couldn’t agree more.

As chairman of the council, he was invited to an international conference held for the Tisza River in Hungary two summers ago.

They wanted his insight on how to establish an organization like the council.

But the biggest lesson learned during that trip was one ingrained in Sidney’s brain after seeing the haunting state of the Tisza.

“We just take it for granted, that the water is going to be clean all of the time,” he said. “Free, clean water. I think everybody should have the right to that. Just like having the right to breathe.”

And putting the power in the hands of the aboriginal people, closest to the river, is the answer in securing those rights for everyone, he said.

“We want to be able to say that we own the river and we have a say to what happens in the future to it,” he said. “We don’t want our governments pulling it out from underneath us and selling it off.

“The people aware of the importance of water would never allow the council to ever fail – given the situation currently happening in our world, globally, environmentally and economically.

“If it ever comes to having to pay for our water in order to survive on this earth, we’d be in big trouble.”

Contact Roxanne Stasyszyn at

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Premier Sandy Silver, left, and Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Brendan Hanley, speak during a live stream in Whitehorse on January 20, about the new swish and gargle COVID-19 tests. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Swish and spit COVID-19 test now available in Yukon

Vaccination efforts continue in Whitehorse and smaller communities in the territory

Local poet Joanna Lilley is photographed at the Beringia Centre in Whitehorse on Jan. 20, where she will be hosting a poetry workshop on Jan. 24. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Poetry for the ages

Workshop set for the Yukon Beringia Centre

President Joe Biden signs executive orders after speaking about the coronavirus, accompanied by Vice President Kamala Harris in the State Dinning Room of the White House on Jan. 21, in Washington, D.C. The administration announced plans Jan. 20 for a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge after the Trump administration issued leases in a part of the refuge considered sacred by the Gwich’in. (Alex Brandon/AP)
U.S. President Joe Biden halts oil and gas lease sales in ANWR

“Its great to have an ally in the White House”


Wyatt’s World for Jan. 22, 2021

Children’s performer Claire Ness poses for a photo for the upcoming annual Pivot Festival. “Claire Ness Morning” will be a kid-friendly performance streamed on the morning of Jan. 30. (Photo courtesy Erik Pinkerton Photography)
Pivot Festival provides ‘delight and light’ to a pandemic January

The festival runs Jan. 20 to 30 with virtual and physically distant events

A man walks passed the polling place sign at city hall in Whitehorse on Oct. 18, 2018. While Whitehorse Mayor Dan Curtis is now setting his sights on the upcoming territorial election, other members of council are still pondering their election plans for the coming year. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Councillors undecided on election plans

Municipal vote set for Oct. 21

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
City hall, briefly

A look at decicions made by Whitehorse city council this week.

A file photo of grizzly bear along the highway outside Dawson City. Yukon conservation officers euthanized a grizzly bear Jan. 15 that was originally sighted near Braeburn. (Alistair Maitland/Yukon News file)
Male grizzly euthanized near Braeburn

Yukon conservation officers have euthanized a grizzly bear that was originally sighted… Continue reading

Mayor Dan Curtis listens to a councillor on the phone during a city council meeting in Whitehorse on April 14, 2020. Curtis announced Jan. 14 that he intends to seek nomination to be the Yukon Liberal candidate for Whitehorse Centre in the 2021 territorial election. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Whitehorse mayor seeking nomination for territorial election

Whitehorse mayor Dan Curtis is preparing for a run in the upcoming… Continue reading

Gerard Redinger was charged under the <em>Civil Emergency Measures Act</em> with failing to self-isolate and failing to transit through the Yukon in under 24 hours. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
Man ticketed $1,150 at Wolf Creek campground for failing to self-isolate

Gerard Redinger signed a 24-hour transit declaration, ticketed 13 days later

Yukon Energy, Solvest Inc. and Chu Níikwän Development Corporation are calling on the city for a meeting to look at possibilities for separate tax rates or incentives for renewable energy projects. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Tax changes sought for Whitehorse energy projects

Delegates call for separate property tax category for renewable energy projects

Yukon University has added seven members to its board of governors in recent months. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
New members named to Yukon U’s board of governors

Required number of board members now up to 17

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: Your Northern regulatory adventure awaits!

“Your Northern adventure awaits!” blared the headline on a recent YESAB assessment… Continue reading

Most Read