Court battle over Yukon's Peel watershed plan resumes Thursday

A deeply divisive Yukon court case goes to appeal tomorrow. On one side, the Yukon Government. On the other First Nations and Environmental groups. At stake is future of the Peel River Watershed.

Yukon Government challenging court ruling that overturned its management plan for the area

The Peel River Watershed has become a symbolic issue in Yukon as environmentalists and First Nations clash with the Yukon Government. (Juri Peepre)

A deeply divisive Yukon court case goes to appeal tomorrow.

On one side, the Yukon Government. On the other First Nations and Environmental groups. At stake is future of the Peel River Watershed.

The Yukon Government hopes the court will overturn a decision that quashed it's land-use plan for the Peel Watershed region. Last December Justice Ron Veale ruled the Yukon government pursued a flawed process. 

"The government recognizes the fundamental importance of the Yukon First Nation final agreements, said lawyer John Laskin.

"The issues that are raised in the case are very important issues and the government feels it's in the public interest to gain the appellant court's review of all the issues that are raised by the trial decision on the plan." 

The definition of 'collaborative'

This case boils down to interpreting the umbrella final agreement that governs Yukon's land claims. The agreements set out a collaborative process for land use planning. It took five years for an appointed commission to create a land use plan for the Peel Watershed region at a cost of $1.6 million and lengthy public consultation. 

The plan called for up to 80 per cent of the watershed to be protected from any industrial development, including mineral staking, something environmentalists and First Nations were prepared to accept.​ 
Justice Ron Veale ruled last December the Yukon Government could not override the recommended land use plan for the Peel. (Philippe Morin/CBC)

At the end of the process in 2014, the Yukon Government modified that plan, protecting less than 30 per cent of the land. First Nations and Environmental groups argued that violated the spirit and intent of land claims. 

The trial judge agreed and basically said the government could not come in at the end and re-write a plan created in a collaborative process, said Jeff Langois, who's representing the Gwich'in Tribal Council, which has intervenor status in the case.

"There is a process of collaboration that was mandated in this land claim agreement and it was a process that was followed fine until you get to the end of the day when the final recommended [Peel] plan was given to Yukon, they basically re-wrote that plan in its entirety," Langois said.

Government claims final say

For the next two days the Yukon Government will argue it is clearly written in the treaty that the government has the power to modify a land use plan. Government lawyers will argue it did so to reflect a balance between conservation and development. 

"Through the appeal the government is seeking clarity that the Yukon Government retains the authority to make final decisions on non-settlement lands," Laskin said.

Thomas Berger, who represented First Nations and environmental groups during trial, was not available to comment.

Langois said the issue of interpretation is of interest to other parts of the country with signed land claims — across the North and in British Columbia. He says it's possible the case will go to the Supreme Court of Canada.


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