As Canada approaches its 150th birthday, it seems fitting that we all take a moment to reflect on our country and what it means to be Canadian. We all know what a Canadian is suppose to be: Tim Hortons-drinking, hockey-loving, outdoorsy, polite. These traits describe little more than a stereotype. In reality, the Canadian identity has always been a bit unsure of itself.
What is Canada if not a beautiful, sprawling landmass? Look at the Peel Watershed in Yukon, for example; nearly 68,000km2 of untouched wilderness. The Peel is one of the last undeveloped watersheds left in this country and is one of the largest non-roaded 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 premiered in Toronto in March 2017, and will be shown across the country as a means to show audiences what they discovered.
According to the project site, 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. Seeing them bring their different artistic practices—including photography, glass blowing, and poetry—from the dense metropolis to the vast Canadian wilderness is enthralling. 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 Canada’s 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, consider that the Peel Watershed, as it is now, may not be there 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 that the development of land occurs in a fair and harmonious way. According to the Peel Watershed Planning Commission website, the Government of Yukon manages over 97% of the land, which is seen as Crown land. The rest is managed by four First Nation governments from Yukon and Northwest Territories; the Na-ho Nyak Dun, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in, Vuntut Gwitchin and Tetlit Gwich’in. The Peel Watershed has deposits of many valuable resources, including gas, oil, coal, and uranium, and if the Yukon government has their way, 71% of the land would be gutted for economic development through 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 which would see 71% of land used for resources. This decision was the catalyst for the lawsuit which is now being 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 untrue. At the point of breaking, when the artists are wet, hungry, and exhausted on the 18th day, they themselves 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 First Nations are their saving grace.
The purpose of The Peel Project was for the artists to discover themselves; instead, what the film discovers is a pristine landscape, stewarded by people who need help protecting it. The film doesn’t tell you this message but, rather, it shows it to you, through striking footage of the Peel Watershed and the journey to it. It allows the viewer to come to the conclusion themselves that what makes us Canadian is not our beer, our coffee, nor our sports, but the land we live on, and our duty to protect it.
discover more about the peel project & how you can help protect the peel river watershed
This article is in collaboration with The Peel Project
All imagery and videography in this article © The Peel Project