Peel Watershed Contested
Deep in the heart of the Yukon province lies the Peel watershed. For many years this 26,000 square mile stretch of boreal forest was protected by rough terrain and sheer isolation. Mining companies could not turn a profit after excavating minerals from such a remote location. Recent increases in market prices have increased claims on the the Peel watershed. The four years leading up to 2008 demonstrated a 400 percent increase in claims and over one third of the area is expected to have claims on it by 2020 (Y2Y). The Peel Watershed Planning Commision suggested 55 percent of the land be permanently conserved and an additional 25 percent maintain “integrated management” (Ron Johnson). In January of 2014 – after a four year moratorium on mining – the Yukon government completely ignored the Peel Commission and announced that 71 percent of the land would be opened to mining and mineral extraction. 94 percent of popular feedback supported the Peel Commission’s suggestions, despite the clear opposition to mining in the watershed (Y2Y). In 1993 the Yukon government and several First Nations signed an Umbrella Final Land Claims Agreement that laid out how to deal with land claims. The First Nations gave up the vast majority of their land in the agreement but knew that they would have a say in protecting land in the future. The agreement states: “188.8.131.52 Government shall then approve, reject or modify that part of the plan recommended under 184.108.40.206 applying on Non-Settlement Land, after Consultation with any affected Yukon First Nation and any affected Yukon community” (Protect the Peel). Unfortunately the government received suggestions from the public so as not to officially break the treaty, but continued with their own plans without regard for public opinion.
The watershed hosts four First Nations: Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Vuntut Gwitchin, and the Tetlit Gwich’in Council (Protect the Peel). Part of the mystic beauty surrounding the watershed is the nearly untouched nature of the area. Most native people in the lower United States have been relocated onto land that was not sacred, or was shrunken to only one sacred site. The First Nations people of the Peel Watershed have been using the same territory since the beginning of time. While the First Nations do not own the land, most of their land is preserved and the sacred nature has remained mostly untouched by the offensive technological commercialism. This terrain is the definition of a sacred land and maintains the rare qualities of being mostly unaltered. The vast swath of land is almost incomparable. This endangered site is also an endangered species of sacred site that encompases more than a single sacred object but a whole sacred landscape. Chief Eddy Taylor of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in stated that “the value of this area to [their] people transcends any monetary value to be gained from resource extraction. [They] are protecting the Peel for future generations, not only for [their] grandchildren but for [our] grandchildren also” (Indian Country Today).
The Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation – which means the people who lived at the mouth of the Klondike or in an alternate definition “River People” – teamed up with another First Nation as well as two environmental groups including Yellowstone to Yukon (Y2Y): conservation initiative. These four sued the state to repeal their decision regarding the watershed (Y2Y). The environmental groups focused on the populations of rare species and unique ecosystems as well as pointing out that once roads are built there is no going back. The environmental groups provided much of the funding as well as publicity. Videos such as this one demonstrate the importance of the area for wildlife including migratory paths for the Porcupine Caribou Herd. Despite the environmental push, much of the legal argument that played a role in court had to do with the First Nations claims to sacred land. The UN’s Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples was adopted by Canada in 2010 (ICTM). This declaration emphasizes the rights of groups to their culture and to maintain their institutions as well as cultures and traditions. Despite its non-binding nature, the acceptance of these terms sets a social precedent in Canada to honor the First Nations claims.
The debate though is not completely one sided. The Yukon is a very hard place to make a living. Due to this pressure the Tr’ondek Hwech’in website also includes a section on mining encouraging prospectors to communicate with them and undertake mineral exploration on their traditional lands. The seeming hypocrisies of both wanting to protect the land and make money off of it emphasizes the clash between the native traditions and modern capitalism. While the area is used for recreation such a mountaineering and rafting, because of the inaccessibility these activities do not bring in nearly enough revenue to offset the profitability of mineral extraction. An official stated: “We don’t feel it would be responsible to take [most of the Peel region] off the table for any mining activities at all… Yukon protects more land base than any other province or territory in Canada. And that 29 percent is more than two Yellowstones” (National Geographic). Meanwhile a national park like Yellowstone in the United States attracts over 3 million people each year and supports a local economy by employing around 22,000 people. In an area with so much poverty it is difficult to justify protection of an area solely because of cultural and environmental impacts that will still have a large area remaining pristine. The truth though is that the money will not be going directly to the people who need the money. It may offer some dangerous low paying jobs, but most of the money will be going to already wealthy mining companies.
Gold was found in the 1800s in the Yukon including in the territorial home of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in. They have been dealing with European settler’s extraction and exploitation for nearly 200 years. Even now money seems to rule the game. While the government is being slightly more politically correct about breaking treaties, the message being sent is that society has not truly changed. Governments are trying to make reparations (or at least not increase the damage caused) to the First Nations that have been so poorly treated for so long. These reparations are only in places where the resources are already gone. In the Yukon the exploitation continues as money continues to trump cultural value. The Yukon Government perpetuates the manifest destiny the United States boasted as it expanded west. The sentiment is that the land belongs to the people who will make the best use of it and the best use is money. It is hard to imagine that even in the modern day of understanding and cultural appreciation we are participating in the same practices from moving west that we condemn as barbaric. The rich history of treaty breaking by European is kept alive through modern exploitation in previously unreachable places. Only once prospectors have extracted all the present resources and no more monetary gain can be obtained from an area can governments become better people that are willing to offer amends for the harm done. The Yukon supreme court heard the lawsuit on July 11, 2014 and the outcome will indicate whether society has actually changed for the better.
Clynes, Tom. “Yukon Government Opens Vast Wilderness to Mining.” National Geographic Society January 24, 2014. Web. September 2, 2014. <http://news.nationalgeographic.com>
Johnson, Ron. “Yukon Government Opens Vast Peel Watershed to Mining.” Earth Island Journal. Earth Island Institute February 5, 2014. Web. September 2, 2014. <http://www.earthisland.org>
“Protect the Peel: Yukon’s Great Boreal Wilderness.” Yukon Conservation Society. Protectpeel. 2011. Web. September 2, 2014. <http://www.protectpeel.ca>
“Yukon First Nations Closely Guarding Peel Watershed.” Indian Country Today Media Network, April 13, 2011. Web. September 2, 2014. <http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com>
“Yukon’s Peel River Watershed Campaign.” Yellowstone to Yukon: Conservation Initiative. Groundwire Consulting. 2014. Web. September 2, 2014. <http://y2y.net>