Yukon’s free entry system must change

Yukon's free-entry system must change Imagine living in a community where a mining claim can be staked on your property, and you can't do anything about it. Consider a country where hundreds of square kilometres of pristine wilderness are staked for mini

Imagine living in a community where a mining claim can be staked on your property, and you can’t do anything about it. Consider a country where hundreds of square kilometres of pristine wilderness are staked for mining without the need for prior permission or any consultation. Would you want to live in a region where the government supports the ‘right to mine’ over and above basic human rights?

You can stop imagining, because it’s happening here in Canada’s Yukon.

Under the Yukon’s Quartz Mining Act the “free-entry system” allows any company, or indeed any person over 18, to enter private and public lands and stake a claim. This, in turn, gives them rights to access the property and prospect and mine for minerals within that claim.

There are some exceptions: protected areas, farms, under homes and, ironically, mines. But in the Yukon this currently leaves about 80 per cent of the territory open for staking.

The problems seem obvious. The default is that mining is the first and best use of land, above all other values and land uses. Governments and local authorities have little or no power to refuse a claim.

There is no need for prior consultation, nor compensation, when acquiring mineral rights irrespective of the number of claims.

Nowhere in the process is there a point where the public can question or review the staking. Free-entry does not provide for free, prior, and informed consent by affected First Nations.

The system undermines planning processes, compromising plans with unhindered third-party interests.

Mining prevails over private property interests. Most private homeowners only own the surface rights to their land and not the subsurface. Miners are not even required to notify a landowner before driving a stake through their backyard.

These issues have presented themselves throughout the Yukon.

In Whitehorse, concerns were raised when Mount McIntyre’s popular ski trails were staked. Residents in Spruce Hill, a country residential suburb on the southern edge of the city, recently awoke to news their entire neighbourhood had been staked and a mining exploration application is imminent. Residents in Dawson City have fought a long and contentious battle to prevent mining in a subdivision along the Dome Road, an area zoned as residential and hinterland.

Most disturbing of all are the thousands of mineral claims staked in the pristine Peel Watershed since land-use planning in the region began. There are approximately 8,431 mineral claims in the Peel; there were 1,650 when the Peel Watershed Planning Commission began its work.

One would think that the archaic and unfair practice of free-entry would be an anachronism in this day and age. The Yukon government thinks otherwise and is “confident that Yukon has appropriate regulatory processes in place.”

This simply doesn’t wash with the majority of Yukoners who want areas like the Peel protected from this type of development, or with residents who will have to live with heavy equipment and exploration or mining quite literally on their doorstep.

Proponents argue the current system is fair and provides certainty for the mining industry, a major economic driver in the Yukon.

Mining does have a valid role to play, but not at the expense of other sectors of the economy, aboriginal rights or the rights of residents to enjoy the “peaceful enjoyment … of property” as outlined in the Yukon Human Rights Act.

Alternatives do exist that would provide better equality than the current predetermination that mining is the most appropriate use of land. The current system could be restricted to preapproved areas only, modified to allow government to approve claim registrations subject to conditions, and a public review period could be introduced. An approach could be taken where the government may grant staking rights subject to environmental and socioeconomic assessments.

A system like the current oil and gas process could allow proponents to apply for an exploration ‘disposition’ for lands with the government determining who and how. A concessions approach would give the government control over the area to be mined, and it could determine the term, rent, royalty, and work obligations through negotiation. But of course the most effective method is simply to have land-use plans in place prior to considering opening areas for development.

Changes to the current system will require amendments to legislation and will take time; something the Peel Watershed plan doesn’t have. While pursuing a change in Yukon-wide mining legislation, the Yukon Conservation Society and CPAWS-Yukon are advising holders of mineral claims and leases in the Peel Watershed that they have a choice: pursue development or sale of risky and socially unacceptable industrial ventures in the remote Peel River region, or contribute to high-profile conservation and corporate stewardship.

Both organizations are calling upon companies with mineral claims and leases in the Peel Watershed to relinquish their holdings, and benefit from widespread, positive public recognition for corporate stewardship.

Jim Taggart

Yukon Conservation Society