Carmacks, Yukon, is home to some 450 souls. In the traditional territory of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation, the village is named for one of the territory’s most famous prospectors, the only white man among the group that discovered gold in the Klondike in 1896.
In September, the Yukon government issued a decision document endorsing its own appointed Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board’s decision to grant a quartz mining licence for a major copper mine in the Carmacks area.
This decision was taken despite the express objection of the Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation.
The Carmacks Copper Project is to be an open-pit mine, coupled with a giant cyanide leaching heap, 90 metres in height, and 31.5 hectares in area.
Built into the side of a mountain that drains into the Yukon River watershed, the heap will contain sulphuric acid, copper, cadmium, lead and selenium, in amounts toxic to fish, wildlife and humans. Plans call for a road into the mine to run right through the quiet streets of Carmacks.
According to Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation Chief Eddie Skookum, the First Nation is “not against mining, but we will not accept a mine on our traditional territory that threatens the very existence of our land and water.”
Infuriated at the territorial government’s refusal to consult with aboriginal people despite a plethora of agreements and legal rulings, Skookum said, “They’re treating this land like it’s some Third World country.”
He couldn’t have been more accurate.
Western Copper, the “junior mining company” fronting for this project is a spinoff of an acquisition of a subsidiary of Goldcorp, one of the biggest mining companies in the world, a notable corporate criminal and the subject of a recent report called Investing in Conflict: Public Money, Private Gain.
To judge from the report, the Carmacks Copper project is, so far, typical of Goldcorp’s behaviour in aboriginal communities all over the Americas.
Goldcorp got its corporate start in life in Indian Country, in Red Lake, Ontario, where it neither sought nor got approval from the First Nation to build one of Canada’s largest gold mines.
In 2005, the company pled guilty to charges of illegally adding unapproved chemicals to its tailings, constructing illegal tailings areas and discharging 110,000 litres of contaminated tailings into Red Lake. Fined $225,000, the only inconvenience the giant multinational suffered was extracting the pocket-lint from the small change.
In Catamarca, Argentina, Bajo Alumbrera, a Goldcorp joint-venture open-pit mine, uses so much water it has become almost impossible to farm in some areas.
In June, the Federal Chambers of Tucumán in Argentina brought criminal charges of environmental contamination against the vice-president of Bajo Alumbrera for “dumping millions of litres of toxic liquid wastes into DP2, a canal used by animals and farmers.”
In Guatemala, where just as in the Yukon the law requires that aboriginal people be consulted prior to development on their lands, Mayan villagers flatly rejected Goldcorp’s proposed Marlin Project, another open-pit, heap-leach operation, but the company finessed a legal end-run around the people’s wishes.
Today, villagers report that “all the damages, of which the experts warned us before the arrival of the mining project have come true: the deforestation, extreme dust, the contamination of water sources, dry wells, the competition for water usage and the accumulation of dangerous waste products from the mine.”
There isn’t space here to list all the negative consequences of Goldcorp’s adventures in aboriginal communities throughout the Americas, but there is a discernible pattern: water shortages and contaminated water, criminal violations of permit conditions, disastrous social impacts, sweetheart deals with compliant governments, circumvention of the will of aboriginal people, and rough handling and even death of protesters.
That the Yukon would open its doors to this spawn of Goldcorp is no surprise to those of us who live here.
Widely perceived as a band of bumbling rednecks, the current territorial government has repeatedly proven itself hostile to aboriginal sovereignty. As Skookum said in a recent press release, “Even when we hire the most distinguished experts in the field we are not respected. It’s like shouting in the wind. This has to change.”
No doubt Yukon First Nations will have to go to court to have their rights respected.
Premier Dennis Fentie has a reputation for stubbornly sticking to even his most bone-headed decisions, and can expect the full support of the Harper Conservatives in Ottawa on anything related to hurried, poorly regulated development.
Across Latin America there have been protests and blockades against Goldcorp’s activities.
People have put their lives on the line for their communities, their environment, and their rights.
But that is Latin America, and this is Canada. It will be interesting to see what Yukoners are willing to do to protect one of the world’s last great wild places from the ravages of corporate greed.
Al Pope won the 2002 Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in BC/Yukon. His novel, Bad Latitudes, is available in bookstores.