CBC

Decision will mark the end of years-long legal battle over wilderness area and treaty obligations

An independent commission came up with a recommended land use plan for Yukon's pristine Peel watershed region in 2011. The territorial government then came up with its own plan, which would have opened more of the region to development. First Nations and environmental groups cried foul.

An independent commission came up with a recommended land use plan for Yukon’s pristine Peel watershed region in 2011. The territorial government then came up with its own plan, which would have opened more of the region to development. First Nations and environmental groups cried foul

The country’s highest court will deliver a ruling on Friday that’s focused on a land use plan in northern Yukon, but could have far-reaching implications for how modern First Nations treaties are interpreted elsewhere in Canada.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruling will bring an end to a five-year legal battle between the Yukon government and a group of First Nations and environmental groups over the vast Peel watershed region. The case was fought in territorial courts before the First Nations and environmental groups appealed to the country’s highest court.

A Supreme Court hearing was held in Ottawa in March.

The Peel watershed is a roughly 68,000-square-kilometre swath of pristine sub-Arctic wilderness that represents about 16 per cent of Yukon. It’s larger than Nova Scotia.

Peel watershed

The dispute centres on a land use plan for the Peel region, a 68,000-square-kilometre swath of pristine sub-Arctic wilderness that represents about 16 per cent of Yukon. (CBC)

The dispute has centred on Yukon’s land use planning process for the Peel watershed and what happens when a government fails in its treaty obligations.

In 2011 after years of work, an independent commission came up with a final recommended land use plan for the Peel region. It would have protected about 80 per cent of the region from development.

The Yukon government didn’t like that idea, and in 2012 it presented its own plan, which would have protected just 30 per cent of the region.

Local First Nations and environmental groups cried foul, and took the government to court. They argued the territorial government had breached its treaty obligations under Yukon’s Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA), which was signed by First Nations and the territorial government in 1990. It describes a collaborative process for land use planning.

The lower courts agreed that the Yukon government derailed that process by ignoring the commission’s recommended plan in favour of its own.

Restarting the process

What was not clear, though, was how to get the land use planning process for the region back on track. The court battles continued, all the way up to the top court.

“[The Yukon government] didn’t do what they were supposed to do. The question really is about the remedy, at this point in time,” said Gordon Christie, a University of British Columbia law professor.​

Friday’s decision has been highly anticipated in Yukon, where the dispute became a flashpoint for government-First Nations relations in recent years.

Peel watershed case

Representatives of several Yukon First Nations and environmental groups were in Ottawa last March for the Supreme Court hearing. They’ve planned a news conference for Friday afternoon to discuss the court’s decision. (Cheryl Kawaja/CBC)

Yukon government lawyers have argued the Peel planning process should go back to where input from all stakeholders is considered. But the First Nations and environmental groups want the commission’s final recommended plan from 2011 to stand, allowing the government only minor modifications — something Christie favours as well.

“A lot of people have pointed out that giving the Yukon government the opportunity to redo the whole thing doesn’t seem appropriate — it doesn’t seem it fits with issues of reconciliation,” he said.

Christie says Friday’s ruling will have “far-reaching consequences” beyond Yukon. He says it’s about how modern treaties — many of them in Canada’s North — are honoured and implemented.

Gordon Chrisite

Gordon Christie, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, expects the top court’s decision to have ‘far-reaching consequences’ beyond Yukon. (UBC)

Yukon’s mistake was in ignoring what’s clearly spelled out in the UFA, he says.

“There’s supposed to be some collaborative process of decision making, and we need to see that upheld by the court,” Christie said.

“The Yukon government is in that old mode of thinking, ‘Well, at the end of the day, we’re the government and we get to decide.’ So I’m really curious to see what the Supreme Court of Canada says about that.”

Representatives from the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Na-Cho Nyäk Dün, and Vuntut Gwitchin First Nations, as well as the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society and the Yukon Conservation Society, have planned a news conference on Parliament Hill on Friday afternoon, to discuss the decision.

The event will be live streamed at the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre in Whitehorse, beginning at 10 a.m. PT.