First Nations are in the fight of their lives with the Yukon government

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A little less than two weeks ago, the Yukon government announced that it would open most of the Peel River Watershed -- a wilderness the size of New Brunswick -- to mining and other development.

A few days later, First Nations groups in the Yukon and Northwest Territories and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society (CPAWS) launched a lawsuit against the Yukon government. The groups say the Yukon government's plan runs counter to a land claims agreement it, together with the Federal government, signed with the First Nations.

CPAWS and the First Nations groups have engaged former Justice Tom Berger to represent them, and there will now almost certainly be a long period of litigation.

Berger is a legendary figure in the worlds of First Nations rights, environmental protection and sustainable development.

In the 1970s, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Berger head of a Commission of Inquiry into a series of proposals to build a pipeline to carry Beaufort Sea natural gas down the MacKenzie River Valley corridor in the Northwest Territories.

His report was a landmark document that still bears re-reading.

It recommended a ten year moratorium on any pipeline development.

Berger wanted government and industry to allow time for settlement of land claims with the Inuvialuit of the Mackenzie Delta and Beaufort coast and with the Gwich'in, Slavey, Dogrib, Hareskin, Chipewyan and other groups that make up the Dene Nation.

Berger also recommended permanently protecting some environmentally precious areas, such as the caribou calving grounds in the Northern Yukon.

Today, Berger says the Yukon government cannot simply ignore the rights of First Nations as set out in their land claims agreement. That agreement is, in essence, a modern-day treaty.

Yukon government ignores Planning Commission

All of this could all have been avoided had the Yukon government heeded the recommendations of a planning commission in which it participated fully.

The six member Peel Watershed Planning Commission included both Yukon government and First Nations representatives. It held consultations over a seven year period and in 2011 recommended that some mining activity be allowed in the territory, but that a good portion be set aside as permanent wilderness.

First Nations people would still hunt, trap and fish in the wilderness areas, and there would still be eco-tourism. But there would be no major mineral exploration and development.

The Yukon government has ignored the Commission's report and now recommends opening well over half the territory to extensive mining activities.

Right now, the only highway through the Watershed is the narrow, gravel Dempster. It runs over 700 kilometers, from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, NWT, north of the Arctic Circle.

Prime Minster John Diefenbaker started the Dempster in 1958, as part of his "northern vision." It was to be a "road to resources."

There is an ice-road extension of the Dempster that goes north for another 140 kilometres -- in the winter only, of course. Prime Minister Harper recently announced plans to make that extension permanent, which will take the highway to Tuktoyaktuk, on the Beaufort Sea coast.

As it was in 1958, exploiting the resources of the North is the name of the game today.

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission recommended extreme limits on future highway development, in essence, stopping at the Dempster.

The Yukon government favours virtually unlimited road construction throughout the Watershed.

First Nations' interest is more than sentimental; it is about survival

In the Yukon, First Nations people are in the minority. The majority "white" population has elected the resolutely pro-business Yukon Party since 2002, when it defeated the then-governing Liberals.

But the Peel Watershed is not just a matter of importance to Yukoners.

The Peel River rises in the Yukon but flows into the NWT. It joins the mighty MacKenzie River near the Arctic Circle and north of the Gwich'in community of Fort McPherson (Tetlit Zheh).

CPAWS points out that the Peel Watershed is one of the last large and unspoiled contiguous wilderness areas in North America, providing a home for many species that are declining elsewhere. That includes important populations of both woodland and barren land caribou.

But for the Gwich'in and other First Nations of the region there is an economic dimension to the Peel, as well.

They still depend heavily on the meat from the caribou, moose, arctic hare, wild ducks and other game of the area.

And they also harvest fish from the Peel River and its tributaries.

The Peel is home to whitefish, grayling, northern pike (jackfish) and a large and very tasty relative of the whitefish found only in the extreme northwest of Canada, the inconnu (or 'cony').

Arctic char, which the local people call "trout," migrate up one of the Peel's tributaries, the Rat, where many decades ago the legendary "Mad Trapper" made camp.

In a part of the country where freezer-burned hamburger can fetch more than $15 a pound, all of these country foods -- whether fish, fowl or on the hoof -- are of more than sentimental value. They are a vital -- healthy and natural -- source of nutrition.

In addition, the Peel Watershed is of immense historic and spiritual importance to the First Nations people. It is where their ancestors roamed, freely, and where many still remember spending their childhoods.

Court cases don't usually take account of deep spiritual connections.

The bottom-line focused Yukon government is utterly indifferent to that sort of stuff and a spiritual connection to the land would not rate high on the Harper government's priority list.

The First Nations and environmental groups will not be able to appeal to any higher calling on the part of Harper's government or its friends in the Yukon Legislature. They will have to depend on the law and how it interprets the Yukon land claims agreement.

In that effort, they will need as much help and support as they can get. The forces aligned with the Yukon government are global in scope, have enormous power and pockets that are deeper than the Grand Canyon.

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