Mining plans endanger a fifth of the great Peel wilderness

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Na-cho Nyak Dun elder Jimmy Johnny describes his love for the Peel Watershed in the Yukon, where 20 per cent is under threat from mining plans. Photo: Shannon Thompson

In an exclusive for, Journalist Shannon Thompson spent three days in August travelling the pristine waters of the Three Rivers area of the Peel River Watershed in The Yukon, looking at what would be lost should mining development be allowed to proceed. She was a guest of the Yukon Conservation Society and several First Nations communities.

Duo Lakes, Yukon -- Na-cho Nyak Dun elder Jimmy Johnny would rather be picking blueberries and wandering off alone to scout for animals. But today he has a job to do: tell reporters and southerners like me why we should care about the fight to protect the Peel River Watershed in the northeast Yukon.

"To me this is home, I feel I belong here. There is no words for saying what I feel inside about this place. I just don't want to see it disturbed," says Johnny.

He has had plenty of time to get to know the Peel and its mountains, wild rivers, and abundant wildlife. For the past 52 years he's worked as a guide in this area. "I fell in love with this country out here, its pure, pure water and many, many animals," Johnny says, looking out at the land around the Snake River. "Caribou, grizzlies, wolves, foxes, moose, gopher, ptarmigan, falcons, grouse. You name it, it's here."

"Our people have been tied to the Peel River watershed for generations," says Na-Cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn. "Our people are born there, our people have been buried there. The spirituality of this place to our people must be acknowledged."

But his time is running out to help guide the future of the Peel region. For the last five years, the Peel Watershed Planning Commission has studied the watershed, which is 10 times the size of Banff National Park and boasts the largest group of wild mountain rivers in North America. Last December, the commission's final plan recommended protecting 80 per cent of the Peel watershed from roads and industrial development.

That recommendation of 80 per cent protection was considered a minor miracle in a territory built on the Klondike gold rush and with a right-wing premier, Dennis Fentie, who was accused of suppressing pro-protection advice from his own departments.

First Nations ask for 100 per cent protection

But the First Nations who traditionally used the watershed are mounting an unprecedented joint effort to save 100 per cent of the area. They say they are defending their constitutional rights in their traditional territories in the Yukon.

At the recent public consultation on the plan in Dawson City, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation Chief Eddie Taylor left no doubt about it. "Our position is definitely 100 per cent protection in the Peel," Taylor told about 30 people gathered for the consultation. "Make no mistake -- the Tr'ondëk position is to protect this and we are looking for support territorially and nationally."

Chief Taylor got plenty of support from elders who have seen the pollution of the Yukon river. "We don't want that for our future," said Tr'ondëk elder Percy Henry. "I remember drinking Yukon water -- now you can't even do laundry in it."

Polluted water is just one problem facing northern Alberta First Nations who are grappling with rapid tar sands development, said Gladys Netro, a Vuntut Gwitchin whose home is in the Ogilvie River region.

"For them, they thought they had no recourse. There is no turning back, it's too late," Netro said. "We don't have to turn out like our neighbours in Alberta.... We don't want that for our future."

When asked about the need for jobs and the willingness in the past of the affected First Nations to work with extraction industries, Chief Eddie Taylor says they take a balanced position. "We feel that well managed resource development is appropriate in some places, but not in the Peel watershed," he says. "The Yukon government has provided the whole rest of the Yukon for free staking for the world to come in and mine, and this is the only pristine place we have left, and they want that too."

Support is widespread

The chiefs' appeal for support is being heard. They've forged a new level of trust and collaboration with Whitehorse-based environmental groups. The Tourism Industry Association of the Yukon is onside with the 80 per cent recommendation.

There are also signs of national and international interest. The Big Wild Campaign, which you see when you walk into any Mountain Equipment Co-op, is featuring the Peel on their website. American foundations that focus on saving the world's most intact ecosystems and traditional cultures have noticed and funded campaigns to protect the Peel.

"Momentum is happening and I'm hopeful that the pressure is being felt," says Chief Taylor. "The First Nations and the Yukon general public are on the same side. And when those two unite, that is the most powerful force in the Yukon." He hopes that the upcoming election in the Yukon will add incentive for politicians.

When Margaret Atwood visited the Peel in 2003 as part of a Canadian-artists-meet-elders expedition and book project organized the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, she wrote about the usefulness of artists to this massive beautiful land:

"It needs them to tell the rest of us about itself because, at the stage we've now reached in the saga of ever-expanding, ever-voracious humanity, anything or anyone that isn't understood, valued, and defended -- made real to the hearts of others -- is likely to be exploited and obliterated."

Over three days at Duo Lakes, we didn't hear a single car, no planes flew overhead. It is the wildest place I've ever seen and it quickly worked its magic on my heart.

But is the area too remote for most Canadians to value? Is the industry lobby too powerful? Is Premier Fentie listening?

This is the only question that gets the normally soft spoken elder Jimmy Johnny riled up."I get kinda upset when I hear what these guys are saying, cause many of them in their offices have never set foot in this area. They don't know what they're talking about," Johnny says.

"To me, this place is more valuable than money. That's all these guys think about is money, money. Nothing else. They don't care for the land, how they disturb it, they don't care how they pollute the water. Then they leave us poor people alone with our disturbed land. Where are the animals going to go then. What will we do after that?"

The Dawson meeting was the second in a series of meetings the governments are holding to gauge public sentiment on the Peel plan. The Whitehorse meeting is set for Sept. 15 and the Plan closes for public comment on October 1. After that, the Yukon and the First Nation governments will prepare a Final Recommended Plan. For more information:

Shannon Thompson is a Toronto-based environmentalist and educator who long ago worked as a documentary producer for CBC North. With files from Mary Walden -- read her blog here

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