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Yukon judge allows camera in courtroom for initial part of Peel watershed trial

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WHITEHORSE - In an unprecedented decision, a Yukon Supreme Court judge has allowed a camera in the courtroom to film a portion of a trial connected to the future of the Peel River watershed.

On Monday, Justice Ron Veale approved an application allowing an environmental group to record the first half of the opening day of the proceedings.

The Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society is one of two groups, along with a pair of First Nations, that will face off against the territorial government over its controversial land-use plan for the region.

Despite applications by local media organizations in the past, filming of civil and criminal trials has never been allowed in the Yukon.

"I think it's going to be an historic week," said Jody Overduin of the society, known as CPAWS, which is seeking to document the legal battle for archival purposes.

"We also feel that it could be useful in the future if there are opportunities to make a little film with that footage," she said.

The society will be allowed to film from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. on July 7, capturing opening statements by both sides and possibly some of the plaintiffs' initial arguments.

Overduin said there are no plans to release the recording publicly any time soon.

The court's legal officer, Andrea Bailey, said she has never seen cameras in a courtroom for a trial — either civil or criminal.

Both Bailey and John Hunter, the head lawyer for the government in the lawsuit, said there would be several conditions attached to the order.

"It is just the one video person from CPAWS that's been given this leave," Hunter said.

Bailey said one aim of the court was "making sure that the camera equipment is as unobtrusive as possible."

The ultimate purpose of the footage was also under examination, Bailey said.

"I think the order will restrict it to things like documentary, news, archival kind of use, nothing that would bring the court into disrepute," like muckraking, polemics or parody.

The one-week trial arises from the government's adoption of a land-use plan for the Peel watershed that litigants claim was unilateral and unlawful because it breached the co-operative process outlined in the Yukon's aboriginal land claim settlements.

The suit was filed jointly by the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, the Tr'ondek Hwech'in of Dawson City, the Yukon Conservation Society and CPAWS Yukon last February.

Two courtrooms have been set aside for the case — one for the hearing itself and another, equipped with a flat-screen TV and video streaming, for extra members of the public.

The final land-use plan recommended by a Peel River watershed planning commission in July 2011 called for wilderness protection for over 80 per cent of the watershed.

However, the plan formally adopted by the government last January calls for wilderness protection for less than 30 per cent of the watershed and surface access — via roads, trails and bridges — through much of the area.

The government argues it had the right under the land-use process to accept, reject or modify recommendations advanced by the Peel planning commission because 97 per cent of the watershed is territorial Crown land.

Former B.C. Supreme Court judge Thomas Berger will be representing the plaintiffs. He has suggested the government failed to conduct proper consultation regarding any proposed changes to the original recommendation by the planning commission. (Whitehorse Star)

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