Gold miners still showing up in Yukon, ignoring self-isolation rules: Dawson City officials

Southerners on the hunt for gold are still heading to the territory and entering grocery stores in a move called ‘negligent’ by the chief of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation

WHITEHORSE, Yukon — Roughly 10 miners from Saskatchewan arrived in Dawson City, Yukon, last weekend and two members of the group ignored self-isolation rules and entered a store, according to the chairperson of the community’s emergency measures organization.

Yukon requires all people arriving to the territory to self-isolate immediately for 14 days.

Mike Masserey told The Narwhal members of the group were heading to a mine site in the area, where they intended to self-isolate.

He said stores have notices informing people not to enter prior to self-isolating. Despite this, two members of the group entered a general store to stock up on supplies, Masserey said.

“I think they should get fined,” he said, adding that they drove into Whitehorse on April 3 and were in Dawson the next day.

“If they contracted the virus anywhere along the line … we don’t know. They don’t know either, but they know what the rules are, and yet they don’t see a problem with coming in and shopping at our stores.”

Masserey said if staff who run the two stores that sell food get sick, the community is in trouble. “Dawson is dead. We have no supply of food.”

Placer mining is common in the Dawson City area. Miners scoop up rocks and gravel from riverbeds, sort through them for gold and then dump the waste rock in a process that can severely damage streams.

In a territory that has a gold panner on its licence plates, placer mining is seen as a low-cost way for small-scale operators to get into the mining business without having to front the costs associated with starting a larger mine.

Masserey has seen other miners pass through the community as well. He said roughly a week and a half  ago, two miners flew in from Europe and stopped in town for groceries. Another one drove up from Florida about three weeks ago. Masserey said he instructed him to stay away from Dawson City and the miner said he planned to live out of his truck.

Mining in Yukon has been deemed an essential service, but there are still guidelines for the industry to follow. Last week, emergency measures were introduced that made self-isolation upon entering the territory law. Failing to do so can result in jail time of up to six months, fines or both.

A spokesperson with the RCMP said roughly eight people travelled to Yukon from Lloydminster, Sask., in a convoy, noting no charges are being laid. The group is self-isolating outside of the town’s limits.

“Two females in the group were responsible for getting groceries for the group and stated that they had self-isolated prior to the drive,” said Alma Edwards, acting director of strategic communications for Yukon RCMP. “There was a misunderstanding that they had to self-isolate once entering a new province or territory.”

“Neither of the females were exhibiting signs, symptoms of illness and were provided education by the responding police officer.”

As of April 8, there have been no charges under the Civil Emergency Measures Act, according to a spokesperson with the Department of Community Services.

“Our goal is not to charge people but to educate the public and have voluntary compliance,” Breagha Fraser said in a written statement to The Narwhal.

‘It’s just being negligent’: Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in chief

Roberta Joseph, chief of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation in Dawson City, raised concerns that placer miners entering the area are not taking self-isolation seriously, potentially jeopardizing the health of people there and in Yukon at large.

Miners flying from the south could spread COVID-19 to Dawson City residents, Joseph told The Narwhal, adding that spring breakup is when some come back to the region from out of the territory.

“It’s just being negligent towards and [showing] a lack of respect towards the people in our community who live here year-round,” she said.

Brooke Rudolph, executive director of the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association, said placer miners from 15 businesses are currently self-isolating, but she didn’t know exactly how many people. She said those who are self-isolating or have self-isolated had returned to Yukon in about the past two weeks.

The association’s members are primarily Yukoners. Membership hovers around 200, which includes businesses and individuals. Not all members are miners.

Some placer miners choose to live and work in Yukon during the summer months, Rudolph said.

“Really, they just came home,” she said.

The placer miners’ association rolled out measures of its own. It introduced a tracking system, for instance, that allows it to keep tabs on who’s self-isolating and where they visited and when, Rudolph said. After self-isolation, miners’ whereabouts are also documented. It’s voluntary for miners to share their information.

“We believe that placer mining can safely and responsibly occur and also provide economic benefit, not just to the Yukon but also small communities, which will really make a positive impact in light of a total decline in tourism,” Rudolph said.

She didn’t know how many placer miners have returned to Yukon recently, adding that most came back to Yukon before COVID-19 hit the territory. The territory’s first case was confirmed on March 22.

Gold seekers are flooding into the Yukon and wreaking havoc on its rivers

Enforcement officers now monitoring entries to Yukon

Travellers are now required to fill out a travel declaration, notify officials of self-isolation plans and provide contact information at the border and airport.

Earlier this week, John Streicker, minister of community services, said there are now enforcement officers posted at entries 24/7, including at the Whitehorse International Airport to meet incoming flights.

“With our outreach, notifications and the border measures in place, we are managing the situation as thoroughly as we can,” Jesse Devost, a spokesperson with the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, said in a written statement to The Narwhal. “All miners should have been aware for several days now when encountering the checkpoint in Watson Lake or the Whitehorse airport of the need to self-isolate.”

Devost said the department doesn’t know how many placer miners have arrived, noting that they aren’t required to check in with mining recorders — officials in field offices who register claims, process permits and collect fees.

“The claim owners do need to visit the mining recorder usually later in the year to report the work they did to their claims, and we will continue to conduct that business with them, under our COVID-responsive office practises,” he said.

A 2002 study found that as many as five per cent of Yukon streams have been affected by placer mining, which “has resulted in extensive changes to stream channel morphology and stability.”

Dawson City Mayor Wayne Potoroka said it’s not only placer miners — everyone needs to follow the rules.

He said some people have been “late to the party,” noting there were groups of people congregating downtown recently, including locals.

Potoroka said the municipality has made it easy for people to self-isolate by working with several hotels that offered to cut their nightly rates in half.

There have been some changes, he said, since enforcement officers have been stationed at checkpoints.

“If you’re coming up the road now, there’s a stop,” he said. “You’re gonna get the hard talk.”

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Julien Gignac is The Narwhal’s Yukon correspondent, based in Whitehorse. Of Mohawk and French descent, he has a penchant for…

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