First Nations’ legal fight for Peel goes to trial in July

First Nations’ legal fight for Peel goes to trial in July
Fred Koe of Fort McPherson protests the Yukon government’s land use plan for the Peel watershed on Jan. 30.Shayla Snowshoe.

The battle over the future of the Peel watershed will be fought in Yukon Supreme Court July 7-11.

The five-day trial was scheduled after lawyers for both sides met briefly with Justice Ron Veale in the privacy of the court boardroom Mar. 11.

The suit against the Yukon government was filed in late January by Mayo’s Na-cho Nyak Dun and Dawson’s Tr’ondek Hwech’in, along with the Yukon Conservation Society and CPAWS-Yukon.

The four groups say the government had no right to dump the Peel commission’s final recommended land use plan for their own plan, which they argue violates the land use planning process in the modern-day treaties.

The commission, made up of appointees from the Yukon and First Nation governments, including the NWT Gwich’in, spent seven years researching, analyzing and consulting on how to best manage the Yukon portion of the transboundary watershed.

It came up with a plan to protect 80 per cent of the 68,000 sq.km. region – a plan which received widespread public support in the North and beyond.

However, the government’s new plan, which went into effect Jan. 21, replaces most of that protection with areas that allow industrial development.

The legal suit wants to see the court force the government to accept the original plan, but the Yukon government denies it’s done anything wrong by coming up with its own approach.

Aboriginal claims expert Thomas Berger is leading the legal challenge for the First Nations and conservation groups. The Yukon government has hired BC lawyer John Hunter to defend its handling of the plan.

Neither Berger nor Hunter were at the Whitehorse court hearing.

Yukon lawyer Stephen Walsh, who appeared for Berger, told reporters the trial date was agreed to beforehand, along with other procedural matters, so there were no disagreements.

The high-profile, precedent-setting case is expected to attract attention from all over the country.

Meanwhile, Peel protection advocates are planning to send a musical message to the Yukon government when MLAs return to the legislature Mar. 25 for the spring sitting.

Organizers of the Playing for the Peel rally hope to attract people and their instruments to perform as the politicians get down to business.

Last spring, Premier Darrell Pasloski used his opening budget speech to attack conservation groups and their work on the Peel.

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