The Peel and the politicians: Yukon premier at centre of storm over watershed

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There is a smell up north and it is not from the boreal and sub-alpine flowers taking advantage of the short but wonderful Yukon summer.

Rather it is the stink of political interference caused by the Yukon Premier in the type of information bureaucrats from the Yukon Environment Department can submit to an independent, arms-length-from-government land use planning commission.

Weak draft plan for the Peel

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission is attempting to gather information regarding the importance of environmental, economic, social and cultural values for the entire Peel River watershed.

The intention was that once this information had been gathered the commission would develop a comprehensive land use plan. Instead, a rather weak draft plan has been issued that is sorely lacking in protecting the environment. As an aside, the public has until June 30 to submit commits on this weak plan. It is online at www.peel.planyukon.ca.

Examining the documents submitted by the Yukon Environment Department, the experts on the environmental values of the region, it would appear they contributed only four pages of rather weak statements. It is kind of telling that the four pages of weak comments the Environment Department finally submitted to the commission were done through the Energy Mines and Resources Department.

They were not submitted independently, unlike other departments such as Tourism. Energy, Mines and Resources seems to spend its days promoting traditional resource extraction projects. Given the pro-development agenda of the current Yukon political leadership, the views of Energy, Mines and Resources often outweigh the views of all other Yukon government departments. 

The funneling of the Environment Department comments through the Energy, Mines and Resources Department would appear to complete the subordination of environmental concerns to resource extraction in the Yukon Territory.

Political interference from Premier Fentie?

But documents revealed by an Access to Information Request, published by the Yukon News on Friday June 19, explain why this happened.

The documents suggest, according to the article, that a phone call from Yukon Premier Dennis Fentie to the Deputy Minister of Environment resulted in the Environment Department not submitting an already prepared 22 pages worth of detailed technical input to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission. It would appear the premier was ‘irate’ over the 22 pages prepared by the Environment Department. Instead, the Environment Department submission was watered down to a weak four pages.

Had the Commission received the original 22 pages of information they might have come out with a draft plan that featured a much stronger emphasis on environmental protection.

First Nations within the planning area and the general public have stated that they want 50 to 100 hundred per cent of the Peel River watershed protected. The current draft plan only fully protects about 12 per cent of the watershed.

To further muddy the crystal clear waters of this pristine northern watershed, the premier has stated in the Yukon legislature that there will be no political involvement in the Peel River watershed planning process until after the Commission recommends a plan in the fall.

Instead, it would now appear that political involvement from the premier prevented the Commission from receiving critical information about the Peel River watershed from Yukon government bureaucrats. The gutting of the Environment Department submission is an indication that Yukon government politicians do not want protection of ecological values in the Peel.

Planning Commission must rise above political meddling

Luckily, the Yukon Government is not doing the land use planning. Rather, it is the independent Peel Watershed Planning Commission.

The Commission will need to rise above the political meddling and be the arms length body they are mandated to be. The Commission needs to incorporate the Yukon Environment Department’s 22 pages of detailed comments, easily accessible now that they are in the public domain, and produce a plan that First Nations and the public can support.

If the Yukon political leadership ends up rejecting or drastically altering the plan it will be clear that it is for political, not technical reasons.

And it will be clear what the current Yukon government leadership thinks about the opinions of the voting public and First Nations governments.

Lewis Rifkind is a Whitehorse based part-time environmentalist. His work centers around Yukon recycling, energy and mining issues and he is also responsible for a weekly column in the Yukon News.

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