by Samson Hartland
First Nations engagement and partnership has quickly become the defining factor in the success or failure of any particular project in Yukon. It is important to understand how, and why, early and respectful engagement with First Nations is so vital to Yukon’s mining industry.
Yukon First Nations were the original discoverers of gold in the Klondike in 1896. Skookum Jim, travelling with George and Kate Carmack and Dawson Charlie, discovered gold on Bonanza Creek (then known as Rabbit Creek). According to historical accounts, the group agreed to allow George Carmack to appear as the official discoverer, due to fears that mining authorities would be reluctant to recognize a claim staked by a First Nations individual.
Subsequent to the Klondike Gold Rush, in 1902, Chief Jim Boss of the Ta’an Kwach’an Council wrote the Canadian government requesting compensation for lost lands and hunting grounds as a result of the gold rush. As there is no response on record, it is widely believed that his request went unheeded.
In 1973, the issue of treaty negotiations, or the lack thereof, was raised through the publication of “Together Today, for our Children Tomorrow” authored by Chief Elijah Smith who then led a delegation to Parliament Hill. This historic moment eventually led to protracted negotiations over the course of decades, finally reaching a climax with the development of the Umbrella Final Agreement in 1988, which was signed in 1990.
Yukon First Nations regained right and title over specific land selections as part of the Umbrella Final Agreement (UFA). This recognition of existing rights and powers included the ownership of both the surface and subsurface rights on Category A settlement lands. Last year, the Yukon Chamber of Mines, on behalf of its membership, extended a recognition of the same notification provisions in place on Category A lands for Category B lands as well. This means that industry will now voluntarily notify affected First Nations prior to undertaking any activities on settlement lands of any kind.
The UFA also ushered in a new era of responsibility for both proponents and First Nation governments. The introduction of socio-economic agreements between proponents and First Nations provides a clear understanding of what First Nation expectations of proponents are. Basic tenants of these agreements include the recognition of First Nation inherent rights and interests which include: land tenure, social licence for the proponent to operate, protection of the environment, First Nation business opportunities, employment opportunities, social issues, training and education, and legacy projects.
Recent examples of modern agreements include those between Alexco Resources and the Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation, Victoria Gold and Na-Cho Nyak Dun, Golden Predator and Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Kaminak Gold and Tr’ondek Hwech’in, Wellgreen Platinum and Kluane First Nation, and Capstone’s Minto mine’s agreement with Selkirk First Nation, of whom the latter also receives royalty payments in its entirety from Yukon government as the mine is located on Category A settlement land.
To put things into perspective, Yukon First Nations are the territory’s largest mineral rights holders. The UFA includes permanent mineral rights to nearly 24,000 square km of Category A settlement lands (equivalent to 124,000 mining claims).
In today’s world, in order to be successful, a proponent must engage early and respectfully with the Yukon First Nations upon whose traditional territory the proposed activity is to occur. The Yukon Chamber of Mines is seeking to educate proponents on best practices through its publication, Yukon First Nations Engagement and Consultation Guidebook for Proponents, produced in partnership with Yukon First Nations and released in 2012, with an updated version forthcoming in the next year.
Today, First Nation development corporations, which are the economic development arm of First Nation communities, are not only involved in the economic opportunities that mining provides, but are also playing a greater role in project developments throughout the territory.
The future bodes well for Yukon First Nations and communities, as First Nations not only own the resources located on settlement land, and service supply companies providing goods and services, but are also looking into investing in and owning mining companies. Yukon First Nation CEOs and presidents of mining companies are right around the corner.
There are excellent examples of such progressive and successful partnerships between First Nation communities and mining, such as the Red Dog mine located in Alaska. Inupiat involvement in this project is creating lasting jobs for Inupiat Development Corporation shareholders, providing opportunities for Inupiat youth, and acting as a catalyst for regional economic benefits without infringing upon the Inupiat culture and way of life.
This economic foundation supports jobs, education and a revenue stream for local government that is allowing the region to become more self-reliant. In fact, Inupiat Development Corporation shareholders make up nearly 57 per cent of the mine’s workforce.
It is clear that Yukon First Nations will continue to steward the environment, lands and its resources located in their traditional territories, just as they have for millennia, while Yukon First Nation development corporations are now emerging as major players in Yukon’s economy.
Samson Hartland is the executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines.