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‘Shut it down’: Yukon First Nations call for halt to mining operations in light of coronavirus

‘Economic imperatives cannot be placed above the health and safety of our people,’ says Na-cho Nyak Dun chief, but territory deems mining an essential service

WHITEHORSE, Yukon — Despite restrictions set in place to curb physical contact among Yukoners during the COVID-19 pandemic, the territory’s two producing mines continue to plug along, stirring concern among nearby First Nations.

White River First Nation called on Yukon Premier Sandy Silver to stop mining activity in the territory this week. White River lands director Janet VanderMeer told The Narwhal that resources should be geared toward the health and safety of citizens, not the extractive industry.

Her concern is that keeping Minto Mine, located roughly 240 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, and others running will bring in more workers from outside the territory, increasing the risk of locals coming into contact with the virus. That’s why all exploration and staking in the First Nation’s traditional territory should stop, VanderMeer said.

“Shut it down, let’s move on and that’s it,” she said. “Reassess in 30 days.”

In a written statement, John Brim, CEO of Minto Management Ltd., said the copper-gold mine continues to operate in step with COVID-19 orders. He declined to be interviewed.

The Yukon government released guidelines for work camps earlier this week, instituting a mandatory 14-day self-isolation period for those who leave Yukon and intend to return to a site. Other measures include ensuring food is handled safely, practising social distancing and limiting contact with co-workers.

“We have to take the word of the company,” VanderMeer said. “We have to trust them, that they will incorporate these guidelines into what they do. The reality on the ground is a lot different than a damn piece of paper. I don’t trust them.”

She added that the First Nation wasn’t consulted on the guidelines.

“It’s one of the red flags,” she said, noting she has yet to hear back from the Yukon government since sending a letter urging a pause on mining to the premier on Monday.

‘You don’t turn the lights off and leave’

Ranj Pillai, minister of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, said during a news conference on Wednesday that mining can’t simply shut down.

“You don’t turn the lights off and leave an operation of that size,” Pillai said. “There is still an obligation to have people on the ground.”

The Minto and Eagle Gold mines both have on-site camps for workers. John McConnell, president and CEO of Victoria Gold, told The Narwhal that roughly 190 people are currently at Eagle Gold, the largest mine in the territory. This, he added, hasn’t changed since operations began. Minto Management Ltd. did not respond to questions about the size of its workforce.

On March 25, the First Nation of Na-cho Nyak Dun sent a public letter to the premier, calling on the government to put mines into care and maintenance until the pandemic blows over.

“We are also asking for a temporary halt to prospectors coming to and staking our lands,” Chief Simon Mervyn wrote in the letter. “Economic imperatives cannot be placed above the health and safety of our people.”

Failing to do so, he continued, “stands to have serious and irreparable consequences.”

“It also constitutes a potential breach of our guaranteed rights to life, security and other legal rights under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as well as our section 35 rights to protect our people and our way of life.”

Mervyn declined further comment to The Narwhal.

His letter doesn’t specifically mention the nearby Eagle Gold Mine, which is located in central Yukon near Mayo.

Pillai told reporters he heard Mervyn’s request “loud and clear,” noting a resolution was recently passed by the First Nation regarding the issue.

“They’ve been communicating with people who mine in that region and they’ve been sharing that information saying that’s their position,” he said.

“I can say that my colleagues that are here with us in cabinet are moving very quickly and we’re probably going to hear about some measures very soon. I think that’s going to lead to some more comfort around ensuring we keep people safe.”

Pillai said exploration activity hasn’t been suspended.

In a message to miners, he said: “Get your materials, get your supplies, go to where you need to work away from people and understand that all of our communities are at a heightened alert right now because of this.”

Eagle Gold mine

The Eagle Gold Mine, located in central Yukon, is the biggest mine in the territory and is currently home to about 190 workers. Photo: Bighouseproductions.ca

Work crews at Eagle Gold Mine staying for longer periods

McConnell said Victoria Gold has implemented measures of its own. The objective is twofold, he said — providing job security while preventing the spread of the virus.

Rather than the typical two-week rotations, for instance, crews have been asked to stay for four.

“The crew there now has volunteered to stay there for eight weeks,” McConnell said.

People are being screened for the virus when coming to and from the site, he continued. Commercial flights aren’t being used anymore between Whitehorse and Mayo. The company has decided to use charter planes instead. Workers take a company bus to get to the site.

“There’s no contact in Mayo,” McConnell said.

In terms of Mervyn’s letter, McConnell said he understands his concerns.

“They want to make sure that no one in their community gets COVID,” he said. “I talk to the chief quite regularly. I have absolutely no problem with asking exploration companies to refrain from staking until we’ve stopped emergency measures.”

Six cases of COVID-19 in Yukon

On Wednesday, Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, confirmed the sixth case of COVID-19 in Yukon. He said those who tested positive for the virus are all located in Whitehorse. Three people have fully recovered, he added.

The first case of COVID-19 in Yukon was announced on March 22. The following day, Pillai said Minto had 30 employees fly into the territory to start work at the mine, noting that his department informed the mine of Hanley’s order.

“Some of those individuals went home and other individuals have been in isolation since that point in time,” he said.

“Anybody coming into the territory, no matter what their field of work, has that obligation to ensure they’re healthy people. That’s something we’ve shared with that industry and that’s something we’ll share with all industries.”

“We’re not differentiating between Victoria Gold, a prospector or somebody building a house.”

On Thursday, the Yukon government rolled out further emergency measures to brace for further impacts. Orders provided by Hanley are now enforceable under the Civil Emergency Measures Act. Self-isolating upon entering the territory, for instance, is now law, meaning there could be jail time of up to six months, fines or both for those who fail to do so. Travellers are now required to fill out a travel declaration at the border and airport. There are soon to be enforcement officers posted at entry points.

Dr. Brendan Hanley

Dr. Brendan Hanley, Yukon’s chief medical officer, on April 1, as he announced the sixth COVID-19 case in the territory. Photo: Julien Gignac / The Narwhal

Mining deemed essential service

Mining was also deemed an essential service on Thursday.

“Mining, along with other manufacturing and resource sectors such as agriculture and forestry, has been defined as essential to manage the reliable operation of infrastructure essential for the health, safety and economic well-being of Yukoners,” Jesse Devost, a spokesperson with the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, said in a written statement to The Narwhal.

“Mining operations are businesses that ensure global continuity of supply of mining and mineral materials and products. Yukon is part of the global supply chain.”

Asked by reporters how these measures affect the mining industry, Tracy-Anne McPhee, Minister of Justice, said during an announcement that workers are required to self-isolate away from a mine site or camp.

When it comes to White River First Nation, Pillai said it has asserted territory overlapping with four other First Nations. He said he hasn’t heard from these other governments regarding putting an end to mining activity, adding that the company has paid out miners from Little Salmon/Carmacks and Selkirk First Nations and sent them home.

VanderMeer said First Nations are starting to work together in a bid to put pressure on the government to halt mining operations. She declined to elaborate on which First Nations are involved.

“I do know one of the best things is for us to stay operating, if we can, and contribute to the ongoing economy of the Yukon.”

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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