Gwich’in Tribal Council president Bobbie Jo Greenland-Morgan breathed a sigh of relief when the Supreme Court of Canada quashed the Yukon government’s approval of its own land use plan in the Peel Watershed case.
“For us as Gwich’in and all other Indigenous groups across the country and specifically those Yukon First Nations who launched the lawsuit, I can only imagine how empowering this is for everyone in the sense that, for me, it restores some hope in the system and in democracy and in knowing that the Supreme Court of Canada acknowledges what’s in our final agreements,” she said.
The GTC acted as an intervenor in the case, as Gwich’in traditional territory is included in the Peel River Watershed.
The fight began in 2014, when the Yukon government rewrote a land use plan for the Peel Watershed, flipping the ratio of ‘protected area’ to ‘area open for development’ from an 80/20 split to 29/71.
A number of Indigenous groups, including the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation, argued that the imposition of the land use plan was not consistent with modern land claim agreements in the Yukon and that an independent land use commission’s recommended 80/20 split in 2011 should be the final plan.
The Supreme Court ordered the process back to an earlier stage of negotiations, which will uphold the plan to that point but still allow the Yukon government to propose modifications.
Greenland-Morgan said the court win made her remember many leaders, past and present, who helped Gwich’in argue for their rights.
“It’s really important for our people to understand what it means for the Gwich’in,” said Greenland-Morgan. “It’s a good reminder to our people that hard work pays off, to be persistent and have faith in the democracy of the country, because sometimes we can really lose that hope and faith depending on what’s going on.”
Nihtat Gwich’in Council president Jozef Carnogursky said the decision was expected but great news nonetheless.
“It’s good for the Gwich’in and it’s good for the Aboriginal people across Canada,” he said.
He named Robert Alexie Jr. and Norman Snowshoe, former GTC president and vice-president, as key players during the debate.
“They always ensured that the Gwich’in rights and interests were protected in the Peel with regards to that case,” said Carnogursky. “They were key in developing strategy.”