Taking on the Yukon Wilderness

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As Canada approaches its 150th birthday, it’s time to take a moment to reflect on our country and what it means to be Canadian. We all know what a stereotypical Canadian is supposed to be: Timmies drinking, hockey loving, outdoorsy, polite. In reality, the Canadian identity has always been a bit unsure of itself.

What is Canada if not a beautiful, sprawling, landmass? For an example, look at the Peel Watershed in Yukon, nearly 68,000 square kilometres of untouched wilderness. The Peel is one of the last undeveloped watersheds left in this country and is one of the largest roadless natural areas on earth, seven times larger than Yellowstone. Connection to the land has, and always will be, the quickest way to feel Canadian, and yet for many, spaces like these are not seen in person, only through postcards and nature documentaries.

For some, connection to the land is inherent. It was present when they were born, and it was there for their ancestors and hopefully will be there for future generations. For others, including Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike, that connection has been lost, thanks to the concrete landscape laid down by colonization. In response to this disconnect, six artists recently took part in The Peel Project, which saw them canoe 20 days to the very ends of the Peel Watershed to try and discover what makes them Canadian. A documentary film on their travels is premiering in Toronto at the end of March, and will be shown across the country, as a means to show audiences what they discovered.


According to the project website, The Peel is a “multi-layered project bringing together film, the arts and sciences as a means of telling a uniquely Canadian story of art, adventure and Canadian identity.”

The six artists in the film come from Canadian city centres like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver. It’s enthralling to see them bring their different artistic practices – including photography, glass blowing and poetry – from the dense metropolis to the vast Canadian wilderness. The fresh, young faces at the beginning of the film are nowhere to be seen at journey’s end; instead we see Canadians with a newfound appreciation for the relentless beauty that our natural spaces have to offer. The artists are challenged physically and emotionally, and speak candidly to the camera about their insecurities. If it is not clear why they would subject themselves to the burden of portaging through Arctic wilderness, then consider that the Peel Watershed may not remain completely wild for much longer.

In the summer of 2016, the Supreme Court of Canada announced its decision to hear an appeal to reject the land use plan set out by the Yukon government in regards to the Peel Watershed. The Yukon Land Use Planning Council is meant to coordinate with the government, regional planning commissions, and Yukon First Nations to ensure development of land takes place in a fair and harmonious way. According to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission website, the Yukon government manages over 97% of the territory as Crown land. The rest is managed by four First Nation governments from the Yukon and Northwest Territories: the Na-ho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Vuntut Gwitchin and Tetlit Gwich’in.

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The Peel Watershed has deposits of many useful resources, including gas, oil, coal and uranium. If the Yukon government has its way, 71%of the land would be opened up for economic development, such as oil and mining exploration. Once again, we have the classic standoff between resource-hungry companies trying to cut out Indigenous populations. It was originally recommended, in the Peel Watershed Land Use Plan, that 80% of the land be restricted and preserved. This plan was endorsed by First Nations and a majority of Yukon people, but was ultimately rejected by the Yukon government in favour of a new plan that would see 71% of land used for resource development. This decision was the catalyst for the lawsuit that is now recognized by the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Peel Watershed Planning Commission claims that the area is unpopulated, but as we follow The Peel Project artists into the wild, we discover that this is entirely not true. At the point of breaking, when the artists are wet, hungry and exhausted on the 18th day, they are discovered by a Tetlit Gwich’in family, who takes them in and rejuvenates them. The irony is not lost on the six non-Indigenous “explorers” that history has repeated itself. The land has gotten the better of the settlers, and the Indians are their saving grace.

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The purpose of The Peel Project was for the artists to discover themselves. Instead, the film discovers a pristine landscape, stewarded by people who need help protecting it. The film doesn’t tell you this message; it shows it to you through striking footage of the Peel Watershed and the journey through it. It allows viewers to come to the conclusion themselves, that what makes us Canadian is not our beer, our coffee, or our sports, it’s the land we live on, and our duty to protect it.

(All photos by Callan Field – www.callanfield.com)

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