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Chamber challenges lawsuit

Ludicrous. Cavalier. Opportunistic.This is how Yukon Chamber of Mines director John Witham describes the Yukon government’s charges against…

Ludicrous. Cavalier. Opportunistic.

This is how Yukon Chamber of Mines director John Witham describes the Yukon government’s charges against Yellowknife-based exploration company Aurora Geosciences Ltd.

Negligence charges filed under the Yukon’s Occupational Health and Safety Act come after a year-long study of the bear-mauling death of Jean-Francois Page.

Two Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board investigators did the probe.

The case should have ended there, said Witham.

“Personally, I’m angry that the charges were even advanced to the department of Justice,” he said.

He wants Justice department staff reprimanded or fired.

And he wants those responsible for forwarding the report to Justice officials publicly chastised for a “flagrant abuse of authority.”

By proceeding with the case, the Yukon runs the risk of having the exploration industry declare the place out of bounds.

Small outfits, like his own Kaska Minerals Corporation, won’t be able to afford insuring against what he deems essentially acts of God.

Finally, he’s rankled that the compensation board would target Aurora Geosciences, “one of the leaders in getting safety courses into the Yukon.”

Aurora Geosciences can prove its innocence in court on June 5th, said company president Gary Vivian.

“The bottom line is we’ve essentially been charged with a lot of things that aren’t true and we’ll be able to show that,” said Vivian.

The five charges laid on April 25th reference sections 3 and 7 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act.

The board asserts Jean-Francois Page was not aware of the hazards of being in the bush; that he was not wearing or using required protective devices; that he was not given adequate training or supervision; was not directed to follow proper work procedures; and that the company involved him in an unsafe process.

Both RCMP and Yukon conservation officers declined to release the original incident reports to the Yukon News.

The coroner’s report, which is due to be released in June, will shed more light on the circumstances surrounding Page’s death, said WCB spokesman Mark Hill.

Hill couldn’t go into detail on the exact nature of the individual charges, but they did “stem from a detailed investigation” that, so far, no one outside the WCB or department of Justice has access to.

He hasn’t read the “large” report, said Hill.

Aurora Geosciences supplied the Yukon Workers’ Compensation Health and Safety Board with its safety plan for the investigation last summer.

The company received few comments or concerns about it, said Vivian.

“They said there were some safety things that we need to tighten up on, but also that we had a very good safety manual for a company our size,” said Vivian.

When your worksite includes bear country, there are unavoidable dangers that workers must face — such as accidental bear encounters.

“It’s a risk that everybody understands when they work in the bush,” he said.

But workers’ compensation and the Yukon government believe most bear encounters are preventable.

The government’s website cites “poorly designed and equipped camps, inadequate garbage disposal, lack of training or inadequate firearms,” as grounds for a negligence suit against a company by a bear-injured employee.

Anna Crawford, who worked on the same crew as Page, told the Yukon News last May that most workers don’t bring a rifle when they are staking in the bush, even though it is one of the best tools for protection against grizzlies.

Some do carry illegal handguns, she said.

Flaggers’ hands are often too full with equipment — cables, wires, axes, stakes, GPS units — to carry bear spray or bangers.

Poorly equipped employees meeting a tragic fate in the bush is not unheard of.

In 1987 and 2002, diamond drill helpers in northern BC were mauled to death.

They were working alone without radio, rifle, repellent or noisemakers, according to BC’s Association for Mineral Exploration.

Serious bear incidents involving hikers are more common than work incidents.

The most recent fatal attack against a worker in BC, prospector Arthur Louie, occurred in September of 2005 along the Bowron Forest Service Road.

His car broke down and he was walking to get help when the bear attacked.

Yukon bear-safety educator Al Doherty has also been mauled.

“I got chewed on by a bear 22 years ago. It never once crossed my mind that my employer had absolutely any culpability or responsibility in that issue at all,” he said.

He trained Page before the 28-year-old left for his third field season with Aurora Geosciences.

Doherty says the man was sensible and experienced.

“He knew what he was doing.”

Doherty recalled his own brush with death.

“I was walking up a creek with the wind blowing towards me and I was not overly concerned about bears at the time.

“I probably passed within 30 feet of a sow and two cubs and bang! There! She’s at you, coming at you real fast.”

Doherty did what he had been trained to do: he hit the ground, covered his neck with his hands and put his face down.

The bear beat on him and rolled him over. He managed to grab a fist-sized rock and “whapped” the sow on the nose.

Severely injured, Doherty made it out of the wilderness in two hours thanks to a partner and a working radio.

Four months later, he accidentally walked into an occupied bear den.

This time, nothing happened.

It’s a matter of chance, sometimes, in an uncontrolled and uncontrollable environment.

“The bottom line is in a situation like that (attack last year), it’s not an occupational health and safety issue. It’s a bear attack. Period.”

The Yukon lawsuit has gained national attention, with many bush people generating opinions similar to Doherty’s on the charges (“bullshit”) and the lawsuit: “It’s stupid.”