Gwich'in Pleased with Supreme Court Decision on Peel Watershed Litigation

INUVIK (1 December, 2017) The Supreme Court of Canada released its decision in the Peel Watershed case on Friday, December 1, upholding the Trial Judge’s order quashing the Yukon Government’s approval of its own plan. This decision is favourable for the First Nation groups involved in the case, including the Gwich Tribal Council, who intervened in the case.. 

 As an intervenor, the GTC argued in the Supreme Court of Canada in March of this year.. GTC Legal Counsel David Wright with Jeff Langlois of JFK Law (Vancouver) made submissions on behalf of the GTC.  The opportunity to formally intervene was important because the traditional territory of the Gwich’in includes lands in the Peel River Watershed, and Gwich’in continue to rely on and draw strength from the area as primary place for hunting, fishing, trapping and healing. The GTC was also an intervenor at the trial and appeal level courts in the Yukon.

“This ruling is great news for the Gwich’in and the other First Nations who were parties in this case.  The court’s decision will set the tone for future Crown relations with treaty holders and sets a stage for improved trust between Indigenous groups and the Crown”, said GTC Grand Chief/President of the Gwich’in Nation, Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan. “The Peel Watershed and all its wildlife and resources have been the lifeblood of our people since time immemorial. The decision will have a significant impact on not only our rights and interests in the Peel Watershed, but will also influence the interpretation and implementation of our Comprehensive Land Claim going forward.  Many people worked on this file over many years and it is important to note that the voices of our elders were recognized.  This was an important file through the last few Executive terms of the Gwich’in Tribal Council and leaders from all of our communities played key roles in bringing this to a satisfactory conclusion.  A big mahsi to all”.

At issue was the land use plan for the Peel Watershed, which determines the future for the area. An independent land use planning commission recommended a plan in 2011 that protected 80% of the watershed and allowed development on the remaining 20%. Late in the process in 2014, however, the former Yukon Government re-wrote the plan, protecting only 29% and leaving up to 71% of the area open for resource development projects. The First Nation of Na-cho Nyäk Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, Yukon Chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, and the Yukon Conservation Society are the parties who started the litigation. They successfully argued at the Supreme Court that the Yukon Government’s imposition of the land use plan was not consistent with modern land claim agreements in the Yukon and that the independent commissions plan should be the final plan. The Supreme Court ruled that “the Court of Appeal improperly inserted themselves into the heart of the ongoing treaty relationship between Yukon and the First Nations” and ordered the process back to the stage of negotiations, which will uphold the plan to that point but will still allow the Yukon Government to propose some modifications.

“We are very pleased with this decision”, said Jordan Peterson, GTC Deputy Grand Chief/Vice President. “The Court upheld important parts of Justice Veale’s trial decision, including the quashing of the Yukon Government’s unilaterally-imposed plan. The Liberal Government of the Yukon made promises while campaigning that they were committed to the Commission’s final recommended plan, and we look forward to working with them to implement their promise. Many aspects of this decision will affect not only the Yukon First Nations and the Gwich’in, but helps set the tone of all future Crown-Treaty relations in Canada.  The decision sends the right signal: governments must approach modern treaty implementation honourably and with diligence, or else suffer the consequences. The Peel Watershed is critical for the health, well-being and cultural survival of our communities; there is no question that we must do everything we can to protect that and today’s successful ruling helps affirm our future”.

The Gwich'in Comprehensive Land Claim was settled in 1992 for the Gwich'in Settlement Region. The Gwich'in Settlement Region is made up of the Gwich'in Settlement Area, the Primary Use Area and the Secondary Use Area. The Gwich'in Settlement Area is entirely in the Northwest Territories and is approximately 56,935 km2. Both the Primary and Secondary Use Areas are in the Yukon Territory. The Primary Use Area (21,988 km2) encompasses much of the watershed of the Peel River. The Secondary Use Area (11,456 km2) is a traditional use area in the Richardson Mountains. The Supreme Court’s decision in the Peel Watershed litigation may also affect future interpretation of the Gwich'in Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement.

For more information:

Tony Devlin

Director of Communications
Gwich’in Tribal Council


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