Breaking ground and the law

In going ahead with construction of the new FH Collins school, the Yukon government is breaking the law, says the Yukon Socio-economic Environmental Assessment Board.

In going ahead with construction of the new FH Collins school, the Yukon government is breaking the law, says the Yukon Socio-economic Environmental Assessment Board.

Wednesday, the government announced it would be starting work on the school immediately, digging up and rejigging its utilities.

But YESAB hasn’t finished assessing the plans yet.

“We recognize the importance of this particular project, but we still need to fulfill all of the obligations under our legislation,” said Jennifer Anthony, YESAB’s Whitehorse manager.

Under the board’s interpretation of the Yukon Socio-economic Environmental Assessment Act the entire project needs to be assessed, and a decision document issued, before construction can began.

Starting work on the utilities now is, “not consistent with either the intent or the purposes of the act,” said Anthony. “All elements of the project have to be assessed.”

But the Yukon government doesn’t agree.

“In this case, the work to connect the utilities to the school is identified by the YESAB legislation as being nonassessable, which means the work can be undertaken at any time,” said Highways and Public Works spokesperson Doris Wurfbaum. “It needs to be done so that the existing school can continue to operate during the construction of the new school.”

Next spring, the gym at FH Collins is slated to be demolished so construction can began on the new $52.5-million high school.

Getting preliminary construction started this fall is necessary to “ensure that we can proceed on schedule in April of next year,” said Highways and Public Works deputy minister Mike Johnson.

This project has been in the making for five years.

“With a project of this magnitude we have to ensure that we’re going to do it right,” said Education Minister Patrick Rouble. “We’ve done our homework and we’ve allocated $52.5 million in our capital plan.”

That “homework” included researching best educational practices and consulting with the communities and First Nations.

“We visited Old Crow, Ross River and Teslin because we know those students are also involved in the FH Collins system,” said Rouble.

Those efforts were applauded by Jessie Dawson, a councillor for the Kwanlin Dun First Nation.

“History has not always been kind to First Nations people, and for the most part our educational systems have been lacking when it comes to renewing the strong cultural values and traditions of our people,” she said. “But this new facility will have direct First Nations involvement by First Nations people.”

While the new school will be sensitive to the needs of the community, the building itself will be designed with the needs of the environment in mind, said Rouble.

Making this school environmentally friendly was also a top priority, he said.

The new FH Collins will be built to LEED standards – an international certification for energy efficiency.

The original designs for the school included both a propane and geothermal heating system.

But the geothermal system has since been scrapped.

The amount of water needed for it triggered a more rigorous YESAB assessment, which could have delayed the project.

The plan now is to heat the building with a conventional propane boiler system.

“It’s our intention to pursue geothermal here in the school, if it makes sense,” said Rouble. “We’re still doing the math on that one.”

Putting off the geothermal is “penny wise, pound foolish,” said Peter Lesniak, a potential NDP candidate for Riverdale North.

Several projects around the city, including the Canada Games Centre, the single-parent complex in Riverdale and Whistle Bend included geothermal heating in their initial designs, but none of them were implemented, he said.

“When the prices of these projects start going up, the first things to go are these visionary, looking-forward kinds of concepts,” said Lesniak. “If this building’s going to be here for 50 years we need to look seriously at geothermal because the long-term costs of it are going to be astronomical if the price of oil and diesel keeps climbing.”

Liberal candidate for Riverdale South Dan Curtis was also critical of how the government approached this project.

“I’m really disappointed and disgusted with the way they handled it,” he said. “It took five years to get the sign up and then to see the only construction, which was promised to start this summer, was a shovel in the ground August 31, is just embarrassing”

The timing of the announcement was also questionable, said Curtis.

“It was supposed to be a priority for this whole mandate, and to come and make an announcement right before the writ is dropped is just political posturing,” he said.

But the timing of the announcement was for practical rather than political reasons, said Rouble.

“You’ve also got to stage a project like this,” he said. “This was the best time of the year to start, for construction and logistical reasons.”

The tender for the project will go out in January, with construction slated for the spring.

If everything goes according to plan, the school will be up and running in time for the 2013 school year.

Contact Josh Kerr at

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