Vuntut Gwitchin declare lands frack free, for now

The Vuntut Gwitchin of Old Crow say they are opposed to hydraulic fracturing in their traditional lands until they see proof that it isn't dangerous.

The Vuntut Gwitchin of Old Crow say they are opposed to hydraulic fracturing in their traditional lands until they see proof that it isn’t dangerous.

The First Nation passed a series of resolutions at its general assembly last weekend, including one on hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking.

“Essentially the resolution gave direction to council to oppose fracturing until it’s been proven 100 per cent safe,” said Chief Joe Linklater.

He said many of the Vuntut Gwitchin citizens are concerned about the potential damage to groundwater and drinking water, and the associated negative health impacts of hydraulic fracturing.

The message at the general assembly was clear, said Linklater. His people want fracking studied carefully and they want proof that it is a safe technology before they will allow it in their territory.

“We’re not going in with any kind of preconceived notions. The resolution is telling us to get out in front of the issue now,” Linklater said.

Hydraulic fracturing involves pumping pressurized water, sand and chemicals into the ground to release oil and gas trapped in shale deposits. Combined with horizontal drilling, the technology has spurred a boom in oil and gas development in North America. Boosters describe natural gas as cheaper and cleaner than alternatives, like diesel fuel.

But critics argue that fracking releases more methane than any other form of gas extraction, which is ultimately worse for the environment than carbon emissions. There are also concerns that the process may contaminate groundwater near fracking sites.

Northern Cross Yukon is exploring for oil and gas in Eagle Plains, within the Vuntut Gwitchin’s territory. Last summer the company made an application to allow it to frack, but it later withdrew the request. Northern Cross has since said it has no plans to use fracking in the Yukon.

The Council of Yukon First Nations also passed a resolution in early July, put forward by the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun, that opposed fracking and declared the territory frack-free.

The Vuntut Gwitchin general assembly also passed a resolution to study whether it’s time to get rid of prohibition in Old Crow.

The community has been under an official alcohol ban for a generation, but alcohol use is increasing, Linklater said, and many in the community feel that there may be a better way to handle the ensuing problems.

“The resolution doesn’t call for any decisions at this point. We’re going to form a committee that is a good cross-section of community members … and that committee is to do the research on prohibition,” Linklater said.

“There is a whole new generation of young adults now that don’t understand why there has to be prohibition in the community,” the chief said.

“They say things like, ‘All my friends in Whitehorse and Dawson and other places, they can sit down and watch the play-offs and have a six-pack of beer, but I gotta watch the game with tea.’

“Those are valid concerns, so it’s a good idea to take a look at it again, and figure out what we want to do with it. Prohibition has been, I think, beneficial for the community, but like anything else it’s time for a review,” he said.

Linklater said he was also excited about a resolution to speak more Gwich’in in the community.

The idea is to foster more casual speaking of the language in daily life, Linklater said. While the whole community will work on reviving the language, he said it’s particularly important to focus on teaching it to children.

“It’s much easier to teach young people, young children than it is to teach somebody my age, for example. We are recommitting ourselves as a community to making an all out effort to teach the young people,” he said.

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