Moose-dodging law student studies Aboriginal water rights in Alaska

When Lija Pukitis graduates from law school and begins practicing, there may be some rare occasions when she’ll be late for work. Among the explanations she’ll offer then, certainly none will compare to the unavoidable reasons that made her a tad tardy several times while cycling to her office in Alaska this summer.

“I was late for work a couple of times because I’d be biking along the trail and there would be a moose in the middle of it,” said Pukitis, a law student who spent her summer in Anchorage. “They aren’t dangerous or anything, but I would just turn around a find a different way to work.”

Pukitis, a native of Port Perry, Ontario and second-year UWindsor law student, was awarded an internship through a program called Canadian Lawyers Abroad. During her three-month internship, she worked with an organization called the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Watershed Council. An indigenous non-profit organization, it serves 70 tribes and First Nations in Alaska and the Yukon Territory.

The aim of her work there was to research the legalities of establishing a structure that would allow for Aboriginal governance over the Yukon River watershed. The council was established in 1997 by Aboriginal groups concerned about increasing cancer rates and other health problems in people and wildlife within the watershed. It was created to restore the river and to protect it from further contamination.

“Their goal was to be able to drink the water directly from the Yukon River,” she said of the waterway, a 3,190-kilometre stretch that runs from northern British Columbia through the Yukon and southern Alaska into the Bering Strait. “A lot of them do drink the water already, but it depends on where you are along the watershed. They want to make sure they’ll be able to continue drinking the water.”

She spent most of her time working in Anchorage, but did get to do some travelling, mostly on weekends. At one point, her boyfriend came from Torontoto visit for a week and they went to the Kenai Fjords National Park near Seward, where they went on a boat tour and saw orcas, sea otters and other wildlife.

“Anchorage is a really fun city and the people there are really friendly,” she said. “It’s remote, but it’s roughly the same size as Windsor and it still feels like a city. But an hour out of that and you’re really in Alaska.”

Pukitis said she learned a great deal about legal research while she was in Alaska, but more importantly, saw a much larger picture of how law affects real people by working with members of the tribal council there.

“You see how it impacts real people in real communities,” she said.

When her work there was finished, her team had wrapped up recommendations that mapped out a method for handing over governance to the tribes. Those recommendations have been given to the council, which is working with communities to get input and move the project forward. Their goal is to have a watershed management plan to present by next summer when the council holds its biennial summit in Mayo, Yukon.

“It is possible but’s it’s just going to be a massive project,” she said of the likelihood of the tribes taking control, adding that she plans to stay in touch with the new friends she made in Alaska in the hopes of learning that the plan she contributed to has come to fruition.

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