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The Peel Watershed – Frack It Or Leave It

Joseph O'Brien - Northern Tutchone citizen speaks at a Peel Watershed protest in May 2012.

By Norm Hamilton

It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.

– Ansel Adams

Antagonists in the confrontation in Yukon over the Peel Watershed are polarized between protecting the environment and creating economic opportunity. The Peel Watershed is not only a pristine wilderness; it is potentially rich in fossil fuels that could be extracted using a hotly disputed method.

Hydraulic Fracturing—“Fracking”—is the shattering of rock, usually shale. A cocktail of water, sand and chemicals is introduced into the earth under high pressure causing the shale to split and allow the oil or natural gas to find its way to the well. While the industry claims safety, there have been many instances of poisoned water wells and pollution of the air around the fracking. Extraordinary amounts of water are required to implement fracking, reportedly around five millions gallons per well. In some US states it is now illegal to state what chemicals are used.

In the quest for economic increase we create pipelines, perform fracking and allow careless mining. All these have been responsible for adulterated water supplies and polluted environments. At the same time, because we live and die based on economic circumstances, jobs are necessary to the working public.

Dave Loeks, former chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission at a Peel Watershed protest in May 2012
Dave Loeks, former chair of the Peel Watershed Planning Commission at a Peel Watershed protest in May 2012

There is more to the argument to protect the Peel Watershed than retaining the pristine beauty vs monetary growth. The watershed is one of the few remaining vestiges of pure, clean water left on earth. Plundering it for imaginary wealth may be a death knell.

Will the Peel Watershed be fracked?

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission (PWPC), was established in October 2004 with the express purpose of providing recommendations for the Peel Watershed. Their mandate was to maintain “wilderness characteristics, wildlife and their habitats, cultural resources, and waters” while managing resource use. Seven years, countless studies and consultations resulted in recommendations that 80% of the area be protected with 1% available for minimal development, up to 11% be used for conservative development – and 8% for major development.

However, the Yukon government has a different agenda.

“This remote area holds resources that have the potential to be of great value to Yukon’s economy, both now and in the future,” said Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Scott Kent.

The Yukon government’s unilateral plan protects up to 29% of the region rather than the 80% recommended by the PWPC. Government’s focus on the economy, ignoring the environment, causes people to wonder if their decisions and information are disingenuous. The press release includes the term “enhanced regulatory and permit processes,” ostensibly designed to assure people of the safety of the development.

The Yukon Conservation Society and the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society Yukon along with the First Nation of Nacho Nyak Dun and the Tr’ondek Hwech’in have filed a lawsuit hoping to protect the 42,000-square-mile watershed. They argue that the government breached the planning process as provided by the PWPC.

Prominent lawyer, Thomas Berger represented the Plaintiffs in court in July 2014. Berger said the lawsuit is unwanted but the government has forced the issue. The plaintiffs wish to defend First Nation and environmental values as well as principles rooted in the Constitution.

Joseph O'Brien, Northern Tutchone citizen and Stephanie Sidney, Teslin Tlingit Council member sing at the Peel Protest on May 5, 2012
Joseph O’Brien, Northern Tutchone citizen and Stephanie Sidney, Teslin Tlingit Council member sing at the Peel Protest on May 5, 2012

Then there is the much ballyhooed billion dollars plus budget presented by the Yukon Party. The budget address presented by Premier Pasloski states, “The Government of Yukon’s Budget for 2014-2015 is $1 billion and $318.4 million. ($1,318,400,000).

In reality, $898 million of the budget is federal money provided as Health Transfer, Social Transfer and Territorial Formula Financing. That leaves $410,400,000, approximately 31% of the total, to be collected from citizens, industry and commerce. At one time mining provided $300 million, but that figure is now closer to $85 million.

Statistics of July 2013 show 19,000 people employed in Yukon, 700 in forestry, fishing, mining, oil and gas. This is less than 3%; not all Yukon residents. To be fair, there are some jobs in the businesses that supply mines as well.

Economy is artificial, existing because we agree it does. Environment exists whether we agree it does or not.

When only the economy is taken into account, the environment suffers. Conversely, if we consider just the environment there may be a lack of employment and economic growth. Governments at the federal, provincial and territorial levels are taking the paternalistic position of entering into agreements contrary to the wishes of constituents.

An example is the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) signed September 9th, 2012. Some of the highlights of concern are as follows:

  • The negotiation was conducted behind closed doors.
  • It is a 31 year agreement with 1 year release clause effective after the initial 15 years have lapsed.
  • The FIPA causes us to relinquish control of our labour laws, natural resources and removes full ability to protect our environment.
  • Chinese corporations (owned by the Chinese government) can sue any level of government in Canada for creating rules or regulations that interfere with their ability to create profits.
  • The hearings for those suits will be before an international tribunal, rather than courts, and the resulting decisions will be paid for by Canadian Taxpayers.

This was not the first agreement of its kind, nor was it the last. To get an idea of the full extent of these go to

Peel Protesters in front of the Yukon Legislative Assembly May 2012.
Peel Protesters in front of the Yukon Legislative Assembly May 2012.

Today’s issues include the Northern Gateway Pipeline proposed by Enbridge and promoted by the federal government. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of B.C. Chiefs, said this project is destined to cross critical watersheds, streams and rivers, placing the environment in jeopardy. Enbridge claims there will be 3,000 construction jobs and 560 long-term jobs, all here in B.C.

In 2012, Marc Lee wrote a paper that questions the accuracy of these claims. Recently, the citizens of Kitimat, BC have voted against having this pipeline in their area.

Meanwhile the BC Liberal government is pursuing Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) agreements under protest by numerous environment groups.

So, the question remains, “Does the economy trump the environment or can equilibrium be reached?”

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Peel Guerrilleros

Mountains Blackstone River Watershed. Photo by: Damien Tremblay

By: Damien Tremblay

The fight for the Peel Watershed is like an old western movie: Cowboys vs. Indians; developers vs. tree-huggers; evil vs. good; a black-and-white confrontation. Who are the protagonists and what are their motives?

Let’s imagine that each protagonist has good reasons, and a true motive—the “true motive” being more or less conscious or unspoken. The Yukon Party and the miners want the Peel open for mining and for roads. They use terms like “development” and “balance” to justify their views. They have good reasons: create jobs, they say, and a strong economy of course. Their true motive is clear, however. It is to conform to a world of big money, profits and dividends.

First Nations, conservation groups and wilderness tourism operators all have excellent reasons for protecting the Peel: keeping alive a culture along with the ancestral land, saving a shrinking wilderness and beautiful mountain ecosystems for our own purposes and for the next generations. Are those reasons not enough already? There is another true motive we seldom discuss.

The Peel watershed, like so many mountainous areas, is a place of resistance—a highly political space. Mountains are an essential component of the geography of rebellion. They offered refuge to the maquisards in occupied France. They provided perfect forest and scrub cover for the guerilla warfare of the Fellagha during the Algerian war of independence. Rugged valleys and dizzy summits are still hiding the Taliban in Afghanistan.

It is a historical reality. Mountain ranges thwart the plans of the most powerful armies. They defy logistics; they defy heavily armed forces, challenge economy. Unpredictable and treacherous, they defeat some of the most potent human systems. The dissident, the terrorist, the guerrillero, all find protection in those untamed and remote lands. Far from the centres of power, their ideologies, their beliefs are safer. They are free to exist. Remoteness offers freedom.

If mountain rebels are often a minority and definitely weaker than their opponents, they have at least, the satisfaction of being higher than they. It is much more than a fact of altitude. It is often a philosophical position; principles that make them believe they are higher. They need to be mentally and morally stronger. They fight dominant ideologies, governments and economic systems that by nature are adverse to any type of dissidence—yes, even democracies.

In many ways, mountains are the last physical outpost for critical thinkers. The Peel River is precious because it is a space of alternative; the polar opposite of a world of consumerism, laws and self-destruction. Yes, it is worth being protected because it is a space where we can still say “no.”

Who is the Peel guerrillero of today? How does he fight?

A Peel River skirmish already happened in 1932. Albert Johnson, the “Mad Trapper” was chased by an army of pursuers in the Rat River area, a tributary of the Peel. He had killed a constable and wounded others. For weeks Albert Johnson was able to elude his pursuers. Many media followed his exceptional feats of endurance with great interest. The man fought a police force, a government. The Peel guerrillero of today shares a few commonalities with Johnson, but he is a different type of warrior.

Johnson was fighting in the Peel River area, the best place to escape for him. The Peel guerrillero of today fights for the Peel area—to keep alive the possibility of escape. Johnson’s world had no laws, only the law of nature. Kill or be killed. The Peel guerrillero hopes laws will protect the Peel. He believes in lawsuits. The Johnson’s chase only lasted a few weeks. The lawsuit may spread on several years.

Johnson was fighting a government, just like our guerrillero. But even if Johnson had some sympathy from the public, he was alone and isolated, completely disconnected from any sort of help. The Peel guerrillero is not alone, there are many like him and he can count on global sympathy with social networks.

Johnson followed ridges to spy better on his pursuers; he erased his tracks, sometimes starting gunfights to defend himself. The Peel guerrillero does not erase his tracks. He leaves them everywhere! Newspapers, both printed and online versions, films, photos, and comments on the web are all shared massively. He reaches Google immortality. The Peel guerrillero signs Facebook petitions and clicks “like” on gorgeous Peel Watershed photos. He puts stickers “Protect the Peel” on his car. He participates in peaceful protests in front of the Yukon Legislature. He is non-violent in his actions.

The Peel guerrillero believes in democracy. For him “more democracy” will save his cause. He believes in consultations, letters to elected officials and letters to the editor. Johnson, in all likelihood, did not care about the principles of democracy. He survived. If he believed in anything, it was probably in his bush skills. Paranoid Johnson did not need to believe in conspiracy theories; he was living them. They were all after him. But there is something more dangerous than conspiracy that threatens the Peel watershed—it is indifference. How many people really care about the Peel? A lot maybe; but not enough. The Peel guerrillero needs an even wider audience if he wants to win.

Johnson wanted to be left alone. Maybe a bit crazy, he had, however, outstanding stamina and the will to fight till the end. He was hard to kill. Peel guerrilleros’ lives are not directly threatened and all guerrilleros have not the same level of commitment to win. But many of them are smart and they are now angry. They want to stray off from a univocal path of “if you can hold it, it was mined.” They want to strip away the government’s hypocrisy. They want to see real balance in the world.

Technology, in the form of a plane, defeated Johnson in the end. From the air, he was found easily in the barren landscape of the Eagle River. The Peel guerrillero can take virtual shapes, he is super connected. He masters technology and the digital age. Johnson was surviving in a cold Yukon winter. The Peel guerrillero can live at the other end of the world, in a tropical climate, and still fight adequately. In fact many guerrilleros have never put a foot in the Peel watershed. The legacy of the Mad Trapper lives on. It has reached legendary status. The Peel guerrillero has still to prove himself.

The Mad Trapper has been dead for a long time now but we can wonder if the recent threats on the watershed will bring him back to life. His spirit is already here.