When I walked into a small Vancouver courtroom in 1992, the odds did not look good for the Bonnet Plume River. Facing the judge, a battery of stern-faced lawyers was ready to make the case for the federal government and the company that wanted to develop a mine beside the river.
Our legal team consisted of one lawyer, Stewart Elgie, with the Sierra Legal Defence Fund. He told me that our group, the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society, had a 50-50 chance of winning this particular fight. The case revolved around a 60-kilometre long winter road that had been bulldozed in to a large block of mining claims on the Bonnet Plume River. We had challenged the federal government’s environmental review of the project.
The Bonnet Plume was soon to be honoured as a Canadian Heritage River, thanks in large measure to the efforts of the Nacho Nyak Dun in their land claims negotiations, so at least some people out there thought this river was special. Yet the future of its clear waters and free-ranging caribou would be decided in a courtroom 2,500 kilometres away from this remote northern valley. Surely, I thought, we can’t delegate judgment on thousands of years of biological evolution and the destiny of a wild mountain river to a legal game of chance.
I had journeyed down many remote rivers before canoeing the Bonnet Plume in the summer of 1988, but I had never before experienced a watershed like this one. The aquamarine Bonnet Plume, with its sister rivers the Wind and Snake, carried in their crystal waters all the fascination of the Yukon wilderness. The space, infinite light, the escape from time itself, the never-ending gnarled and saw-toothed mountains, opened a new window on the meaning of wild.
Looking back now, I can see how that two-week journey changed my life. Growing up in a quiet town on the edge of the woods, I had always felt a kinship with nature, but here –on the Bonnet Plume — I realized that without help, extraordinary places like these would soon disappear, even in the Yukon.
In the early 1990s, when prospectors for Westmin Mining Corporation, exploring for copper, staked the flanks of the Bonnet Plume valley, they did so with the historic privileges afforded by the Yukon’s free-entry mining law, which grants powerful rights to those who first lay claim to the land. They knew they could knock down trees, bulldoze roads, dynamite, and utterly transform the land on their claims away from public scrutiny.
We wanted to take a closer look at Westmin’s operation and a generous local pilot donated the use of his two-seater Piper Cub. Soon I was up in the air, photographing the flattened spruce trees along the winter road leading to the airstrip and new mining camp. One corporation was on the verge of setting the direction for the Bonnet Plume valley. After seeing this giant scar on the landscape, I knew we could not accept surrendering this wild river to a money play in the southern penny market. If this northern wilderness was to be diminished, where would we draw the next boundary for nature? It was time to confront the belief that mining exploration was exempt from environmental safeguards, and the only place we could do that was in the courts.
We lost that case on the weight of legal minutia, but we won an important point. The judge conceded the federal government was obliged to consider how mining could affect a Canadian Heritage River. Twelve years later, the airstrip, drill pads, and mining camp were long since abandoned — another legacy of the Yukon’s archaic frontier mining laws. The company found less copper than anticipated and metal prices dropped, so they packed up and left. The company’s promised jobs and bright future for the Village of Mayo evaporated as quickly as the claims had been posted. For its part, the federal government realized its antiquated mining regulations, allowing for extensive exploration work without any environmental review, were no longer tenable. It dusted off long-awaited rules to improve the way mining companies carry out exploration work in the Yukon.
by Juri Peepre, excerpt from “Wild waters, sacred places” in Three Rivers: The Yukon’s Great Boreal Wilderness. Harbour Publishing, 2005.