OTTAWA — First Nations, environmental groups and Yukon Premier Sandy Silver welcomed a Supreme Court of Canada ruling on wilderness lands Friday as a victory for the northern territory.
The unanimous high court ruling is likely to ensure ecological protection of much of the Peel Watershed, a swath of unspoiled terrain that covers an area the size of Ireland.
The Supreme Court said the Yukon government "thwarted" the land-use process by improperly rewriting a plan for the watershed, which features rugged mountains and taiga forests.
Although Yukon lost the case that has been winding through the courts for years, the premier, who became leader only last December, hailed the ruling as an important step toward finalizing a plan that reflects a shared vision.
The territory will aim to work in collaboration with First Nations to complete planning for the watershed, Silver told a news conference in Whitehorse.
"Today, Yukon is closing a chapter," he said. "And as we open a new one, we must not forget the lessons learned through this process."
Chief Roberta Joseph of the Tr'ondek Hwech'in First Nation, one of the Indigenous groups that pursued the matter in court, said she was "extremely pleased to arrive on a path of certainty" on the Peel land-use plan.
The pristine region is a source of fresh water, food and natural medicines, Joseph said during a news conference in Ottawa. "Our ancestors have walked this land for centuries."
The Peel Watershed has no permanent residents and few roads. It is home to a wide range of fish, wildlife and plant species. There is potential to expand wilderness tourism, big-game outfitting and trapping, along with growing interest in mineral and oil-and-gas exploration.
In 1993, Canada, Yukon and First Nations agreed on a consultative process for development of land-use plans in regions including the watershed.
The process led to creation of a recommended plan for the watershed, but the process broke down when Yukon changed the final plan over the objections of First Nations, who argued the territory did not have authority to do so.
The government's changes drastically altered the final plan by removing protections for the vast majority of the watershed and opening up more than 70 per cent of the area to roads, mining and drilling.
A trial judge ruled that Yukon had breached an agreement when it changed the plan, quashed Yukon's final land-use plan and ordered that the process return to the point of final consultations between the territory and First Nations.
The Court of Appeal upheld the trial judge's order to quash the government plan, but said the process must resume at an earlier stage — when Yukon first received the recommended plan.
In its ruling Friday, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial judge, saying the Yukon government had a chance to propose changes to the plan earlier in the process but did not do so.
In her reasons on behalf of the court, Justice Andromache Karakatsanis wrote that Yukon "did not have the authority to make the extensive changes" it made to the final plan.
The high court said the government should not be allowed to take new positions it wishes it had taken earlier. In addition, it ruled the process did not permit the government to modify the plan so significantly that it effectively rejected it.
It means the process returns to the later stage of the process, in which Yukon can approve, reject or modify the final plan.
However, Silver indicated Friday that only tweaks could be expected following additional consultations.
The Supreme Court clarified that any modifications at this stage must be based on those proposed earlier in the process or respond to changing circumstances, adding that modifications are by definition "minor or partial changes."
Christina Macdonald, executive director of the Yukon Conservation Society, said a vital democratic process had been defended. "Today is a victory for the land, for the water, for democracy and the people."
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Jim Bronskill, The Canadian Press