N.W.T. Indigenous leaders say Peel decision shows Canada must honour treaties

The Supreme Court victory for defenders of the Peel watershed gives some N.W.T. Indigenous leaders hope Canada's treaties may be honoured.

Dene national chief calls on prime minister to make statement at Assembly of First Nations meeting

The Wind River in the Peel watershed. The Supreme Court of Canada's Peel watershed decision gives hope to some N.W.T. Indigenous leaders. (Ellen Woodley)

When she heard the news, Gwich'in Tribal Council president Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan was still at home with her family, getting ready for the day.

"Our family just cheered and were happy because it just means so much to the Gwich'in," she said of Friday's Supreme Court of Canada ruling. It was in favour of her First Nation, along with First Nations in Yukon and environmental groups, over the fate of the Peel watershed.

"It was a good feeling, a very good feeling."

In 2012, a land-use planning commission made the recommendation to protect 80 per cent of the watershed against development as part of a legally mandated consultation process. Instead, the Yukon government chose to protect 30 per cent of the area from development, sparking a five-year court battle that culminated with the unanimous Supreme Court decision.

A map shows the expansive Peel watershed. (CBC)

Now, the Yukon government has been sent back to the planning stage, where it must reconsider the original recommendation.

Greenland-Morgan says the ruling strengthens the interpretation of treaties and land-claim agreements between Indigenous groups and different levels of government across Canada. But that's not all.

Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan, president of the Gwich’in Tribal Council, says she was thrilled to learn of the Supreme Court's decision on the Peel watershed. (Facebook)

"It restores faith that maybe we can actually trust the system and the democracy and the honouring of the obligations that the government has to us," she said.

Greenland-Morgan recalled the leaders who inspired her to get into politics, adding she hopes the decision sends a message of empowerment to Indigenous peoples across Canada.

Dene National Chief Bill Erasmus said the decision demonstrates that Canada as a country is only as strong as the government's respect for its treaty obligations.

"I think it's really important that the territories, the provinces and the federal government step back and take a good look at these agreements and not challenge them," Erasmus said.

"Because when they do that they are tearing the fabric of the country apart."

Bill Erasmus, Dene national chief, says honouring treaties keeps Canada together. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

Erasmus recalled how the Dene Nation and other Indigenous groups across the country had a hard time celebrating Canada 150 this year because of court battles like the one over the Peel.

He called on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to stand up at the Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa this week and tell the chiefs in attendance that he respects the Government of Canada's treaty obligations.

"[The treaties] are what kept us together over the years and they are the instrument that will keep us together in the future," Erasmus said.

"Based on that we have to recognize that section 35 of the Canadian Constitution is a box full of rights and that box is what keeps everybody glued together in Canada."