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The Peel Watershed


Wind River by Peter Mather

The Yukon's Peel River Watershed is one of the largest and most beautiful intact natural areas left in North America. The region encompasses 68,000 km² of rugged mountain river landscapes and supports thriving wildlife populations. The region is the ancestral homeland of three Yukon First Nations – the Na-cho Nyak Dun, Vuntut Gwitchin, Tr’ondek Hwech’in - and the Tetlit Gwich’in of the North West Territories.

The regional land use planning process for the Peel Watershed began in 2004. In 2011 after extensive public and government consultations, the Peel Planning Commission produced a Final Recommended Peel Watershed Regional Land Use Plan. This plan proposed an approximate 80-20 split between protection and development. The majority of the Yukon public and the affected First Nations supported this plan. 

The Yukon government opposed this plan and unilaterally implemented their own plan for the Peel despite enormous opposition. The government’s plan opened over 70% of the region to development. In response, the affected First Nations and two environmental NGOs – the Yukon Conservation Society and CPAWS Yukon – took the Yukon government to court. The case was heard at the Yukon Supreme Court and the Yukon Court of Appeal before heading to the Supreme Court of Canada in March 2017.

Supreme Court of Canada

On December 1, 2017, Canada's highest court delivered a decisive victory for the Peel Watershed. The SCC was asked to rule on two points – the correct remedy for when a government breaches obligations under a modern treaty (Yukon government’s derailment of the land use planning process), and whether parties to a land use planning process can reject a plan at the final stage in the planning process.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the former Yukon government did not have the authority to introduce the changes it did to the Final Recommended Plan and open over 70% of the watershed to development. The court therefore concluded that Yukon’s approval of its plan is quashed. The court’s remedy returns the process to the stage in the land use planning process (11.6.3.2) where Yukon can ‘approve, reject or modify’ the Final Recommended Plan after consultation. This overturns the previous ruling of the Yukon Court of Appeal that permitted the Yukon government to return to a much earlier stage in the planning process.

On the second point, the court decided not to rule on the Yukon government’s right to reject a land use plan at the final stage, stating “a court should simply assess whether the challenged decision is legal, rather than closely supervise the conduct of the parties at each stage of the treaty relationship”. However, the ruling does provide strong, general guidance for the final stage of the land use planning process, stating “an unconstrained authority to modify the Final Recommended Plan would render this process meaningless, as Yukon would have free rein to rewrite the plan at the end.” When it comes to the Peel, because Yukon government did not argue that its changes to the Final Recommended Plan were made in response to changing circumstances, there is now very little room for government to introduce new modifications.

Our argument before the SCC hinged on having a remedy upheld that would see the Final Recommended Plan for the Peel Watershed approved, a plan that recommends protection for 80% of the watershed. The court unanimously decided in our favour in this regard and provided strong guidance for all future regional land use planning to come in the Yukon.

What’s next?

Yukon government must now meet with the affected First Nations to determine how the final consultations on the Final Recommended Plan for the Peel Watershed will be carried out. We will need Yukoners to turn out in full force once the dates for final consultations are set to celebrate our victory and the Peel Watershed, and call on Yukon Government to uphold its promise and approve the Final Recommended Plan for the Peel Watershed.

Read the ruling

You can read the full ruling on the Lexum Supreme Court website.

For detailed information about the Peel Watershed, latest media coverage, and what you can do to ensure this incredible place gets the protection it needs, please visit www.protectpeel.ca.

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