An opportunity for brave leadership: The Peel Watershed.

 The Peel Watershed. Photo credit: cbc.ca

The Peel Watershed. Photo credit: cbc.ca

Friday December 1, 2017 marked the end of a long battle in the courts…and the start of a new journey, one just as potentially fraught with conflict, misunderstandings and mis-steps as the journey to this point.

If you don’t know about the Peel Watershed, you can read may of the details on CBC or at Protect the Peel. To summarize:

  • A multi-year collaborative consultation process led by an independent commission between First Nations, government and key stakeholders resulted in a recommended land use plan for 68,000 square km of pristine wilderness.
  • That recommended plan protected about 80% of the land use area.
  • The Yukon government at the time didn’t like that plan and came up with its own plan, which would have protected about 30% of the land use area.
  • Protect the Peel was born out of that decision, and Yukon First Nations and environmental groups took the government to court arguing that they had breached treaty rights.
  • After 5 years in the courts, the Supreme Court ruled that the Yukon government didn’t have the right to ignore the commission’s plan in favour of its own plan. A partial re-set button was set that re-starts consultation from the point of the commission’s recommended plan. That means that the Government can approve, reject or modify the plan — after consultation.

Those are the facts. But they only tell half the story. This is an issue that has galvanized Yukoners, Canadians and stakeholders with interests from much further afield. It is a rallying cry for environmental protection and indigenous rights. On a larger scale this case presents an example of how governments respect and value the citizens they serve — or not. A documentary, travelling art exhibit and international campaign were born from the struggle. When you visit Yukon you see bumper stickers, billboards and flyers posted everywhere.

These calls to action create a sense that everyone feels the same about the issue. But that’s a false sense of unanymity. There are other voices that aren’t reflected — natural resource extraction companies, economic development stakeholders, regular Yukoners. Around some board room and kitchen tables in the Yukon, the Peel Watershed is a tough topic to discuss — there are views and perspectives that are afraid to be voiced for fear of intimidation or exclusion. This was a key election issue, and the Yukon Party that made the decision that threw everything sideways lost power in that election.

 

 Protect the Peel protest in Inuvik. Photo credit: cbc.ca

Protect the Peel protest in Inuvik. Photo credit: cbc.ca

This decision presses a partial re-set button that will be a real test of the new Yukon government’s leadership. If I were them, I’d start carefully, slowly and thoughtfully before implementing the consultation process on the commission’s recommended plan.

Here are a couple approaches that might serve to bring people together and create long-term sustainable solutions for ALL of those who care about this place and its people.

  1. Consider what will make the consultation process meaningful. And go beyond just considering and telling people about how you plan to run the process but get them all together in a room, in a rich deliberative multi-way conversation that addresses:
  • where have we been
  • where are we starting from
  • what will make this process meaningful and how can we measure that process. Create some specific indicators of success for that process so everyone agrees.
  • what roles will people play
  • who needs to be part of the conversation to ensure it is sustainable for all Yukoners in the long run

2. THEN plan the engagement process based on that input. Go slow to go fast — make sure you take adequate time to plan out a process that can demonstrate it is meaningful. Don’t rush into this. If you get it wrong this time there are no more chances to build trust and make decisions for long-term good. Make sure your process is fair, inclusive, and meaningful and your decision will be too.

3. Implement the process with neutral facilitators. This is a hot topic and views on it are widely known. If you were a participant who held a different view from a leader in a meeting on this issue would you say what you thought or contribute to the conversation? No, you wouldn’t. Make sure the process is seen clearly to be as unbiased and ethical as possible. Have the data analyzed by someone other than a key stakeholder or the government. Have everyone agree to those terms in the workshops noted under #2 above.

4. Take this opportunity to bravely lead. How do you want to show up? How do you want to be when you engage on this controversial, emotional issue? This is going to be messy, and there will lobbying and positions on all sides. Recognize that the loudest voices aren’t the only voices you should hear — you should hear ALL the voices. It will take courage to stay the course, to trust in a meaningful process, to have faith in the possibility of what really deliberative conversations can create when people from all sorts of life experiences come together. Leaders will need to know where they stand, what they stand for and how they want to show up. And they will need to hold themselves courageous to holding that space for others so they can participate at their best too.

5. When its over, lean into the principles of what makes engagement meaningful. Explain the decision and what you did, and what you didn’t do and why. Demonstrate that the process was fair, inclusive and meaningful — even if the final decision wasn’t exactly what everyone might have wanted. Continue to invest in relationships, build trust and bravely lead as you move into implementation.

It isn’t often you get a “do over” on a major public issue where there is this much passion and interest.

The world is watching.

Take a deep breath, and step forward with courage and compassion and bravely lead a meaningful conversation. And it will all work out.