Blackstone River country: The river is one of seven that feed into the Peel Watershed and drain much of the northern Yukon.

Yukon First Nations Closely Guarding Peel Watershed


With mineral prices climbing, numerous companies with mining rights and interests in the Peel Watershed are eyeing the 16.8-million-acre northern Yukon wilderness for possible development despite the remoteness that used to make it off-limits cost-wise. Thanks to the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which Canada adopted in November 2010, four First Nations are able to stand their ground opposing such development a little more firmly.

Historically, the Peel has been too remote to profitably mine, said the region’s four First Nations—the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Vuntut Gwitchin, and Tetlit Gwich’in—in an April 11 statement. But lately they've noticed increased interest on the part of speculators as the extraction-to-profit ratio drops. But given the pristine and spiritual nature of the region, the First Nations are determined to safeguard it from all development.

“The lands and waters of the Peel Watershed have unparalleled cultural and ecological significance for our people,” said Chief Eddie Taylor of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in the statement. “The value of this area to our people far transcends any monetary value to be gained from resource extraction. We are protecting the Peel for future generations, not only for our grandchildren but for your grandchildren also.”

The First Nations want the entire drainage area to remain undisturbed, reserved only for traditional uses, with no new industrial exploitation, in line with recommendations from a recent study by a territorial commission, which said most of the system should remain off-limits to development.

The drainage systems of seven rivers flow through the Peel Watershed: the Peel, Snake, Bonnet Plume, Wind, Ogilvie, Hart and Blackstone—and the region is one of the last undeveloped boreal mountain watersheds in North America, the tribes said.

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission has issued a detailed plan outlining the best uses of this land.

“Home to healthy populations of caribou, grizzly bears, wolverines and peregrine falcons, this iconic landscape is winter range for the Porcupine caribou herd, which summers in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge,” the tribes said. However, the territorial government is starting to consider opening up the rugged, remote region to mining and other industrial uses, against the wishes of most Yukoners, the First Nations said. Besides the First Nations the list of objectors includes conservationists, local guides and outfitters, and sportsmen. Over the past few years, according to the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative (Y2Y), the number of mineral claims in the watershed has multiplied fivefold.

The First Nations are now able to invoke the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which though nonbinding, clearly sets out the rights and responsibilities of aboriginals worldwide, as well as laying parameters for corporate and nation-state conduct.

“We are calling on companies like Chevron, which has 525 iron ore leases in the Peel, to show good corporate leadership by giving up their interests in favor of protecting the environment,” Chief Simon Mervyn of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun said in the First Nations statement. “These lands have sustained us in body and spirit for thousands of years and our people want total protection. The environment is not for sale.”

Here's more on the Peel Watershed.

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