Under the banner of “Protect the Peel,” hundreds marched in Inuvik, Aklavik and Fort McPherson last week, with sister demonstrations taking place across the border in Whitehorse and Dawson.
In Fort McPherson, over 200 elders, leaders, residents and children took part in a march on Thursday that ended with a traditional feast and sharing circle at the community lodge.
Shayla Snowshoe, one of the participants, said the importance of the Peel watershed is embedded in the livelihoods and history of the Gwich’in people of the region.
“It’s so important to me because my ancestors were born and raised and buried within those lands, and I feel like my history is out there and the real, true person that I am is that land. If we didn’t have that land, I probably wouldn’t even be here,” she said.
“I just feel like I need to protect it for my children so that they can grow up there and learn the lifestyle that I did.”
Snowshoe spent the majority of her summers out on the land with her jijuu, or grandmother, Mary Snowshoe, fishing, hunting and learning different ways to live off the land. In the winters, they would head out onto the frozen Peel River and set nets to get fish and snares.
“This is where we get our wood from, and our caribou,” she said. “I’ve spent a lot of time doing traditional things out there.”
Listening to the elders speak after the walk, she said, was heartbreaking.
“You could just see it in their faces, the pain that this is causing them thinking about their pasts, the lives that they lived there with their families,” Snowshoe said. “It brings tears to my eyes because they know if this goes through, their children are not going to have the same opportunities as they did.”
All Aboriginal governments oppose Peel plan
The original plan done by the commission charged with leading consultations on protecting the Peel watershed in 2011 proposed keeping 80 per cent of the 68,000 square-km area free from development. Unhappy with the plan, the Yukon Government went back and did its own tour of the communities, releasing a new plan a few weeks ago that reduced protection to 29 per cent.
Since that announcement, Yukon’s Aboriginal governments have launched legal proceedings against the Yukon Government, with trailbreaking Aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger leading the case.
All four impacted Aboriginal governments, including the Gwich’in Tribal Council, Na-cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in and Vuntut Gwitchin oppose the Yukon’s current plan.
Snowshoe said the new plan protects “next to nothing,” putting a huge tract of land at risk of irreparable damage, potentially impacting wildlife, water and health.
“It’s a disaster waiting to happen,” she said. “Just one little mistake could cause that whole watershed to be destroyed. Right now, a lot of people have their camps set down all along the river. If you go up with a boat, you’ll just see camps going all along the river. We wouldn’t be able to live there any more if that water is contaminated. We don’t know if that could affect our health.”
As the professional photographer behind Snowshoe Studios, she said she plans to use her skills over the coming months to bring attention to the political struggle and the land, internationally.
“The only way that I can really see myself helping and making a big difference is through my photography. I was thinking about doing a bunch of different projects, working with elders and taking their pictures out on the land and documenting the time that we have now,” she said. “Not only to save it for history but to raise awareness about what is happening and to get more support and help from all around the world.”