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Defending Indigenous land in the Far North

Modified from an image taken by Peter Mather for Protect the Peel. Used by permission of Protect the Peel.

On this week's episode of Talking Radical Radio, Scott Neigh speaks with Bobbi Rose Koe and Chris Rider about the long collaboration between Indigenous nations and conservation groups to protect the Yukon's Peel watershed from industrial development. Along with a lengthy public information and advocacy campaign, in recent years Protect the Peel has also involved a court battle that will reach the Supreme Court of Canada on March 22.

The watershed of the Peel River encompasses an area in the northeastern Yukon that is larger than the province of Nova Scotia. It is one of the largest unroaded natural areas in the world, and is the territory of four First Nations.

The use of land in the Yukon is currently governed by agreements finalized in the 1990s among most of the First Nations in the territory, the Yukon government, and the government of Canada. These agreements include substantial requirements for consultation with and input from those nations whose territories will be impacted by land use decisions. When the land-use planning process was begun for the Peel watershed in the early 2000s, all of the First Nations in the area plus the conservation groups with which they were working took the position that 100 per cent of the watershed must be protected from industrial development. The process was extensive, lasting seven years, and resulted in a compromise that the First Nations and the conservation groups were not thrilled about but that they accepted: 80 per cent of the watershed would be protected, even from the building of roads, while 20 per cent would be opened for development.

Around the same time as the final report of the land-use planning process was released, however, the territorial government released its own report saying that rather than abide by the seven years of good-faith consultation and negotiation, they had unilaterally decided that they would protect only 30 per cent of the watershed and open the rest up to industry.

Already by this point, for many years Protect the Peel had been a highly effective public education and public pressure campaign. It had succeeded in raising public consciousness in the Yukon about the importance of preserving the watershed and had also made significant strides in connecting with people far beyond the territory. With the government announcement that it intended to open up the majority of the watershed to industry, the First Nations leadership and the conservation organizations decided they had no choice but to build on this public campaign with a robust legal challenge as well.

In 2014, the Yukon Supreme Court delivered a stinging rebuke to the territorial government, which was ordered to abide by the outcome of the land-use planning process with no option for introducing changes that would protect any less than the 80 per cent figure in the original compromise. In 2015, the Yukon government appealed this ruling. While the Yukon Court of Appeal agreed with much of the earlier decision's criticism of the Yukon government's actions, it granted permission to re-boot the land-use planning process to a much earlier stage that would end up allowing the government to force through a major reduction in the percentage of land ultimately protected.

On March 22 of this year, the Supreme Court of Canada will be hearing an appeal by the First Nations and the conservation groups. Though the new Yukon government elected in late 2016 takes a much more pro-conservation stance than its predecessor, the case is continuing, and the court will decide whether or not the government will be bound by the earlier process to fully protect 80 per cent of the watershed. All through the legal process, the public education and advocacy component of Protect the Peel has been continuing, and there will be a series of public events in March in both Whitehorse and Ottawa.

Bobbi Rose Koe is a member of the Tetlit Gwich'in nation who lives in Fort McPherson. She is active in Protect the Peel and is one of the leaders of Youth of the Peel, a group of Indigenous people committed to reconnecting other Indigenous youth with the watershed and teaching them skills. Chris Rider is the executive director of the Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, or CPAWS, one of the conservation groups active in defending the Peel watershed. They speak with me about the land, about the long public campaign to protect it, and about the legal process that will culminate in the Supreme Court of Canada later this month.

To learn more about the Protect the Peel campaign and the legal battle, click here.

Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada. We give you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out its website here. You can also follow us on FaceBook or Twitter, or contact scottneigh@talkingradical.ca to join our weekly email update list.

Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.

The image modified for use in this post was taken by Peter Mather for Protect the Peel. Used by permission of Protect the Peel.

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