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Yukon First Nations leaders fear mine will increase violence against women in ‘land of the caribou’

Assessment board says Kudz Ze Kayah mine will significantly harm water resources, traditional lands and human health and safety as it extends public comment period until May 31

First Nations leaders in southeastern Yukon know all too well what new mines can do to their people. They’ve been down this path before. Companies push into communities, prying open the land and taking what’s beneath. Then they bail, leaving behind “nothing but sorrow and suffering,” according to the executive director of a women’s organization.

This could happen again. And not only could the environment be harmed. So, too, could First Nations women — both physically and emotionally, says Anne Maje Raider, executive director of Liard Aboriginal Women’s Society.

Maje Raider and George Morgan, Chief of the Liard First Nation, are calling for more scrutiny of the Kudz Ze Kayah project, a proposed open-pit and underground mine roughly 115 kilometres south of Ross River. To ensure that happens, they asked the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board to extend the public comment period for the project, which the board agreed to earlier this year. Now, the public has until May 31 to have its say on the project.

This mine is in the heart of Kaska territory.”

BMC Minerals, the company behind the project, wants to build a zinc, copper and lead mine. It’s eyeing a site that falls within the traditional territories of the Liard First Nation and the Ross River Dena Council. The plan is to operate it for 10 years, after which a 26-year closure and reclamation project will occur, according to the assessment board’s draft screening report. The mine’s workforce will number roughly 350 during the 10 years it’s active.

BMC president Scott Donaldson said the company has been working closely with the Ross River Dena Council, the lead Kaska community for the project, to address outstanding issues. He didnt say, however, what those issues are.

Jack Caesar, Chief of the council, wasnt immediately available for comment.

The Ross River Dena Council and BMC have maintained a close relationship since we purchased the project in January 2015 and have jointly developed a number of programs to ensure that when the mine is finally approved, that there is a meaningful involvement by Kaska at all levels, Donaldson said in an email.

Morgan told The Narwhal the proposed mine is slated to go in the vicinity of traditional villages, campsites and drying racks, noting that a new mine would bring in waves of workers, disrupting traditional ways of life. 

Caribou frequent this area. He’s worried about them. 

“This mine is in the heart of Kaska territory,” he said. “We’re talking about a breadbasket here for hunting, for our people harvesting in the fall. In fact, the name of the mine, Kudz Ze Kayah, is actually Kaska for land of the caribou.”

The Finlayson caribou herd, which has seen a steady decline over the past 20 years, is in the area, and many Kaska hunters rely on it, he said, noting there are rutting and calving areas next to the proposed site.

He also wants assurance that the mine, once closed, is adequately cleaned up and not foisted on taxpayers. There are already four abandoned mines in the surrounding area — Faro, Ketza, Wolverine and Cantung.

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“We are committed to making sure that our traditional territory is clean,” Morgan said. “Big projects like this are only going to be acceptable to the Kaska if we can avoid significant harmful impacts.”

“Of course, economic development is important for our members,” he continued. “Our communities need jobs desperately, so we’re just really concerned about doing our due diligence when it comes to the environment. We’re also concerned about capturing traditional knowledge in these areas of activity before that knowledge is lost.”

BMC has agreed to bankroll an independent environmental and traditional knowledge review led by the First Nation, Morgan said. The review is underway, but COVID-19 has thrown a wrench in the process and a completion date hasn’t been set, he added.

The assessment board’s executive committee, responsible for screening large projects like this one, determined the mine, as currently proposed, “will result in significant adverse effects to water resources, traditional land use and human health and safety.”

It outlines several mitigation measures for the company to make good on as a result, including sustained water quality monitoring, caribou and moose monitoring and ongoing geochemical studies.

Faro mine tailings

The Faro Mine in south-central Yukon was abandoned in 1998, leaving behind 320 million tonnes of waste rock and 70 million tonnes of tailings. Photo: Matt Jacques / The Narwhal

‘Women have been targeted, women have been harassed’

First Nations women could be placed in an even more vulnerable position. 

Part of the project includes building permanent camp facilities. The majority of the workforce is likely to be male.

The draft screening report says the project is likely to result in “significant adverse effects to personal safety” of women and LGBTQ and two-spirited people.

“Violence against women is persistently a major issue with large-scale natural resource development activities, with First Nations women being particularly vulnerable,” it says. “The potential effects are wide-ranging as this violence affects not only the individuals themselves, but also children and communities, sometimes resulting in intergenerational trauma.”

There could be an increase in sexual assault and domestic violence, the report says.

Maje Raider, who wrote a letter to the assessment board in December calling for an extension to the public comment period, told The Narwhal First Nations women could be in danger if issues aren’t addressed.

Her organization conducted a series of meetings with women in Watson Lake and Ross River in February. Their concerns will be encapsulated in a report and sent to the assessment board.

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It was during these meetings that a picture of the dangers posed to women started to develop. Concerns centre around women who work at mine sites and miners funnelling into surrounding communities, Maje Raider said.

“They have every right to work there,” she said, referring to First Nations women, “and they have every human right to be safe, to have an environment that’s safe, but that’s not always the case, because as we heard through our meetings, women have been targeted, women have been treated badly, women have been harassed, and so women end up quitting.”

The organization and others made a submission to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, the final report of which was released last June. A section of it says extraction projects can exacerbate violence against Indigenous women and girls.

“We expressed concerns that the violence that happens, the racism that happens, the attacks that happen against Indigenous women who work in the mining industry,” Maje Raider said of the submission to the inquiry. “Really, the impacts that these mines have had on our communities dates back years, decades.”

The draft screening report says Kudz Ze Kayah doesn’t have “notable provisions to prevent the pattern of violence against women and sexual minorities, which occurs consistently as a result of other resource extraction projects in Canada’s North.”

BMC proposes no drug or alcohol use onsite, random drug testing and counselling services, among other things, according to the draft screening report.

The assessment board takes it a step further, recommending mitigation measures such as mandatory harassment prevention training, developing policies that promote a safe environment for women and LGBTQ and two-spirited people and clear procedures for assisting victims of domestic violence. 

One measure is aimed at the Yukon government. The executive committee recommends it earmark more funding for childcare, detox and counselling services and shelters for victims of abuse in Watson Lake and Ross River.

Work on a final screening report will begin when the public comment period ends next month.

Maje Raider has been here before. She’s seen projects just like this one make their way through assessment processes. She’s seen mines come and go, and, once they do, all that’s left is a gaping hole in the ground and toxins in the environment, she said.

“I’ve not seen a mine yet that’s come into our homeland that’s provided everything it’s promised to our people. There’s no wealth that comes into the community. It’s been nothing but sorrow and suffering, because it brings more addictions, more drugs. I’m sad to say, but that’s the reality of it.”

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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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