Peel lawsuit a treaty test: Berger

Peel lawsuit a treaty test: Berger
Famed Aboriginal rights lawyer Thomas Berger is spearheading a lawsuit against the Yukon Government, arguing that the government’s new land use plan for the Peel watershed violates land claims with First Nations.Photo: CPAWS Yukon.

There’s more riding on the Peel watershed land use plan lawsuit than just the region’s future, says lawyer Thomas Berger.

The Yukon’s land claim agreement is also on the line, Berger told a Jan. 27 news conference held to launch the legal challenge.

The North’s other modern-day treaties – which all include land use planning provisions – could also be impacted, he said.

“This is the first test case of these constitutionally -entrenched agreements,” said Berger, who is representing the Na-cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Yukon Conservation Society and CPAWS-Yukon in the suit.

They say the territorial government’s new Peel plan is illegal – a violation of the Umbrella Final Agreement.

They say the government had no right to toss out the independent Peel commission’s plan – seven years in the making – and replace it with its own in-house blueprint at the 11th hour.

“This is a complete rewrite,” Berger said.

The commission’s plan protected 80 per cent of the Yukon portion of the transboundary watershed. The government’s new plan, released two weeks ago, opens most of the wild watershed to industrial development.

“This is a lawsuit nobody wanted to bring,” Berger said. “But the government of Yukon has forced these plaintiffs to go to court, not only in defense of First Nations’ rights and environmental values in Yukon, but also to uphold principles entrenched in the Constitution.”

The 20 year-old Yukon land claim spells out the process for joint land use planning and it must be respected, he said.

Even though the ruling Yukon Party has a majority, it can’t say “we were elected so we can do whatever we want,” Berger argued.

The suit asks the court to force the government to reverse its decision.

Na-cho Nyak Dun Chief Ed Champion said his Mayo-based First Nation worked long and hard to settle land claims and has “absolutely no choice but to fight for these agreements to the end.”

It’s already compromised on the 100 per cent protection it wanted in the first place, he said, and the government’s unilateral approach creates nothing but uncertainty for industry. His First Nation “will not look favourably” on anyone who tries to work in the Peel until the court case is settled.

Tr’ondek Hwech’in Chief Eddie Taylor said government should be held accountable for the land claim promises it made.

“The Peel is our church, our university and our breadbasket,” he said. “The Peel is our homeland.”

Although the Vuntut Gwitchin and the Gwich’in Tribal Council – who also have a stake in the Peel – aren’t part of this suit, Taylor said the four are united in their opposition to the government’s decision to cut them out of the planning process.

Land claim agreements also promised the general public a say in regional planning, said Gill Cracknell, executive director of CPAWS-Yukon.

In this case, the public strongly supported the Peel plan but its opinions have been ignored, she said.

The government says it is reviewing the lawsuit but still believes its new plan meets the letter of the land claims law. It has until mid-February to file a statement of defence.

Last week, people opposed to the new plan rallied in several Yukon and NWT communities, including Whitehorse, Dawson City, Mayo, Fort McPherson, Inuvik and Aklavik.

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