It’s the end of a three-year legal battle.
On Friday, the Supreme Court of Canada rejected a Yukon government land plan that would have seen the Peel Watershed opened to mining and gas development.
Yukon First Nations argued this did not follow their agreement with the territory.
And the top court agreed.
“This is a victory of democracy, Yukon First Nations and Yukoners,” said Chief Roberta Joseph.
Joseph was part of a coalition of groups in Ottawa for the decision.
“I wish to thank the people of the Yukon… it took a lot of years but here we are,” said Chief Simon Mervyn Friday.
The Peel Watershed is a pristine wilderness about the size of Nova Scotia.
The groups negotiated with the Yukon for seven years and agreed to protect 80 per cent of the watershed from development.
But in 2014, the government decided to open up 70 per cent for mining and drilling.
“They did find that the conduct of the former government in taking the approach that it did – in purporting to approve a plan of its own – that was conduct that was unlawful,” said lawyer Margaret Rosling.
The Supreme Court returned the plan to its original form, where the Yukon government can seek modifications after consultation.
“They are bound to act in a manner that’s consistent with the honour of the Crown and that fosters reconciliation with Aboriginal people,” Rosling added.
“And any modifications have to be only minor.”
Micah Clark, a lawyer for the First Nations, said the decision sets a precedent. One that says the original intent of a modern treaty must come first.
“When a provincial or territorial government can say yes or no to land use…that has to be in a way that gives life to the objectives of the treaty,” Clark said.
The coalition doesn’t know when talks with the Yukon government will resume. For now, it is satisfied the watershed is saved.
“One of our Elders always says this is our university and our hospital. And that’s what’s at stake here,” Joseph said.
Premier Sandy Silver called it “a great day” saying the territory could move forward together with clarity.
“We believe that when people look back at this moment in time as a new era based on reconciliation,” said the leader of the Yukon Party who was elected in 2016.
Some members of the coalition made up of three First Nations and a conservation group gathered in Whitehorse.
“It’s huge for the Peel Watershed,” said Grand Chief Peter Johnson at the gathering. “The place has captured everyone’s imaginations …whether they’ve been there or not and they wanted it protected.”
Silver was anxious to get talks re-started, saying they could resume as soon as chiefs returned from Ottawa.
He noted a lot of taxpayers’ money had been spent on the case.