Juri Sass Peepre: Conservationist. Canoeist. Skier. Orienteer. Born Nov. 23, 1952, in Toronto; died May 13, 2018, in Windermere, B.C., of lung cancer; aged 65.
When asked, Juri Sass Peepre would say that his love for nature began while roaming the sugar bushes near his childhood home in Guelph, Ont. But musing privately, he really thought it began much earlier: when he was younger and his mother worked in the kitchen of an Ontario summer camp.
With his father supervising the waterfront, his mother had no child-care option other than tethering him to a stump outside the kitchen door. A berry bush was within his limited range and, for a curious child, that little realm was a glorious kingdom that sparked his imagination.
Watching the sugar bushes being cut down for new subdivisions planted the seeds of his love for protecting nature. Juri moved west after completing a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Guelph. A dream job awaited him: mapping little known rivers in northern British Columbia for Parks Canada. That summer ensured that rivers were a touchstone for the rest of his life.
After working for Parks Canada in Calgary for a few more years, he completed a master’s degree in plant science at the University of British Columbia, and worked as a consultant. But his free time was always on northern rivers or in the mountains; he met his wife, Sarah Locke, on a ski traverse of the Lillooet Icecap. In 1987, the couple moved to Whitehorse, where they lived for 20 years, and where their son, Alex, was born. Inspired by the grand, mostly untouched landscapes he saw all around him, Juri began to work in conservation.
He helped establish a Yukon chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society in 1992, and played a part in the establishment of Tombstone Territorial Park. But it was the campaign to protect the Yukon’s vast Peel watershed which he saw as his life’s work. The campaign reached a crescendo with the ambitious Three Rivers Project. In 2003, artists, writers, photographers and First Nations people travelled down the Wind, Snake and Bonnet Plume rivers. The inspiration from their summer travel led to a multimedia art exhibition which travelled nationally and a glorious book, Three Rivers: The Yukon’s Great Boreal Wilderness.
Protecting the Peel was a difficult trail to blaze in the early days. But even after retiring as executive director and moving to Windermere, B.C., Juri stayed involved. He was gratified to see others take the case for the Peel all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada which ruled against the Yukon government’s attempts to block protection of the watershed.
Juri worked with many conservation groups and received the Harkin Conservation Award in 2010. But his highest honour, the Order of Canada, became oddly intertwined with the cancer diagnosis he received later the same year. He never thought he would make it to Ottawa to accept the award, but attended the ceremony in 2015, and went on to live well with cancer for several more years.
He lived with the disease as he lived his life: calmly, honourably, always setting new goals. His final wish, to have his ashes returned to the waters of the Peel, was fulfilled this summer.
Sarah Locke is Juri’s wife.
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