The modernization of placer mining is long overdue and welcomed by WCS Canada. Placer mining in the Indian River Valley, central Yukon. Photo Credit: C. Mantyka-Pringle, WCS Canada.
The Yukon Government collected just 0.03% of the value of minerals mined in the territory on behalf its residents over last 10 years in the form of royalty payments from mining companies. It is figures like this that draw into question the real benefit of allowing free reign for mining exploration and development across one of Canada’s wildest landscapes.
Fortunately, the Yukon Government has embarked on a review of the rules around mining in the territory. WCS Canada weighed in with a comprehensive set of recommendations urging the government to create a framework that better acknowledges the significant ecological impacts of mining, the impossibility of completely avoiding such impacts and restoring wild areas after mining, and the contradiction between the Territory’s commitment to “free, prior and informed consent” with Indigenous communities and a “free entry” mining system that gives communities no say in where and when mineral claims can be staked.
In particular, our review finds that the Yukon Mineral Development Strategy Panel report remains too taken with the idea that environmental concerns are just hurdles to be overcome, rather than recognizing that mining impacts are often unavoidable and many times permanent. Most importantly in our view, the review panel has not developed its proposed strategy in the context of the major environmental crises that threaten the globe – climate change and biodiversity loss.
Even small operations collectively impact wildlife habitat. Placer mining development along Minto Lake Road, near Mayo, Yukon. Photo Credit: C. Mantyka-Pringle, WCS Canada.
But despite these weaknesses in approach, we see great value in modernizing the territory’s approach to regulating the mining industry. In fact, we hope the new Yukon government will seriously consider this Panel’s report and use it as an opportunity to reconsider the notion that environmental protection should take a back seat to economic priorities. We believe mining projects should only be considered after other ecological and community values are addressed through comprehensive land-use planning processes and that any projects that do proceed should provide real lasting benefits for local communities.
The Panel released their final set of recommendations in April 2021. It varies little compared to the Draft Report, but has addressed some issues raised by WCS Canada, First Nations and others.
· On the issue of respecting the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and particularly the issue of Free, Prior and Informed Consent, the Panel seems to feel that regional land-use planning will be enough to meet these requirements. This is based on the fact that such plans lay out zones where mineral exploration would be permitted. We will see whether Yukon First Nations think that zoning in such planning processes covers off free, prior, and informed consent.
· One major catch with the idea above is that the Panel refused to endorse the idea of a complete moratorium on mineral staking prior to land-use planning. Instead, they recommend a moratorium on 20% of the planning region, with the 20% representing lands with highest ecological, subsistence, and cultural value. So, staking would continue throughout most of the region while planning is underway. This will not work well because lands of high value for conservation and culture are often far more than 20% of a region. Also, such high-value lands are not usually identified at the start of a planning process, but become clear during the process as information is collected and analyzed.
· On the upside, the Panel did urge the government to get on with land-use planning in areas not covered by the Umbrella Final Agreement (a major land claims agreement between the Yukon Government and 11 First Nations). This will be very relevant to the Kaska and White River First Nations and could be an opportunity for them to advance plans for Indigenous Protected and Conserved Areas (which WCS Canada is collaborating on).
· Finally, the Panel responded to the many questions raised about the true economic value – and environmental costs – of mining in the territory by recommending that the government undertake a full economic study of mining’s cost-benefit balance. However, the Panel then undermined this recommendation by suggesting the government collaborate with the Yukon Chamber of Commerce, the Yukon Chamber of Mines and the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association on such a study. This is a biased set of organizations that would bring serious conflicts of interest to the work. The set of organizations advising on this proposed analysis should include Indigenous governments and environmental non-government organizations.
We strongly support the Panel’s recommendations to replace century-old mining legislation that has failed to keep pace with a modern understanding of Indigenous rights or environmental impacts. Yukon has an excellent opportunity to be a leader in adopting a mining regime that much better reflects the challenges the industry poses to our environmental values, that better respects Indigenous rights, and that seeks ways to substantially increase the benefits Yukoners receive from any mining that does go forward under a modernized regulatory regime.
Punching a hole in caribou habitat
Some caribou herds have dwindled to just a few individuals because of human development - Caribou in northern British Columbia. Photo Credit: C. Mantyka-Pringle, WCS Canada.
The proposed Kudz Ze Kayah mine project in southeast Yukon is an example of the perception that major ecological impacts can always somehow be mitigated in the interests of allowing resource projects to proceed.
The Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB) acknowledged in its review of the project that it would have a large impact on the already struggling Finlayson Caribou Herd through habitat loss, disturbance, and displacement. In fact, the mine and its access road would be located in part of the herd’s core range, including next to calving grounds, and would disrupt movement corridors.
The YESAB expressed confidence that these impacts could be “mitigated” and recommended that the project be allowed to proceed. The federal government, having the responsibility to assess this recommendation, decided that the YESAB recommendation was flawed and sent it back for further review. That process included public input and our WCS Canada review found little evidence of how impacts could be controlled or reduced by the proposed mitigation measures and a particular lack of attention to potential cumulative impacts. Kaska people who rely on the Finlayson herd for subsistence also objected to a lack of proper consultation and, in their view, the likely failure of measures designed to reduce the mine’s impact on the herd.
The YESAB has considered this further input of information in a second review, but reached a deadlock with two members voting to allow the project to proceed and two voting to reject it. This leaves the original YESAB recommendation of project acceptance in place. That recommendation is now shunted back to the federal government and the territorial cabinet, for a second round of decision-making on whether or not to accept, modify, or reject the YESAB assessment.
Hopefully, the federal government will stand its ground, in consideration of the unsettled title and rights of the Kaska First Nations in this region, and in the interests of the conservation of the declining caribou herd. That could mean once again rejecting the YESAB recommendation. It could also result in YESAB having to undertake a more thorough environmental impact assessment, called a full Panel Review. Such a process should lead to a much more extensive review of the costs and benefits of the project and of the true likelihood of the success of mitigation measures for a caribou herd that is already in decline.
Photo credits: Banner | William Halliday © WCS Canada