By Jeremy Warren
and Genesee Keevil
Faro should not exist.
The small mining town has faced down economic slumps and staved off abandonment, surviving with a stable population close to 400.
That a town with no discernable industry or chief means of employment can function is testament to the people who still live in there.
Faro was built in 1968 to house employees of the Faro lead-zinc-silver mine; residents and its businesses were at the mercy of mining executives.
The town’s fortunes followed a boom-and-bust cycle with a mine that closed and opened and closed several times in the ‘80s and ‘90s until the gates locked for good in 1997.
“Faro should have been a mining camp,” said Mayor Michelle Vainio.
“Most people aren’t against mining, but its effects.
“Faro should never happen again.
“In the Yukon, people talk about mine disasters, but they don’t often talk about socio-economic impacts.”
In Faro, rows of abandoned duplexes built for permanent residence are slowly falling apart, with paint chipping, windows breaking and doors hanging precariously from hinges.
Neither the mining companies nor the government offered residents buyouts for their homes, said Vainio.
These decrepit houses — stark contrasts to many other beautiful homes peppered across the community — could be the answer to Faro’s economic stagnation.
On these crumbling foundations, the town hopes to build its future.
Vainio is proposing Faro establish itself as a bedroom community for mines in central and northern Yukon.
A handful of mining projects are navigating the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board process.
Mining companies and the territorial government could promote Faro to employees who want to shrink commutes and stay closer to home, she said.
It could prevent another Fort McMurray, Alberta, she added.
“Fort Mac drags people across the country for work,” she said.
Faro could be promoted as child-friendly, safe and clean.
There is room for plenty of children.
The school is built for 400 students.
“We’ll be lucky if we get 50 this year,” said Vainio.
The complete closure of the lower bench area where most abandoned houses are found has been proposed in the past.
But too many occupied houses remain in the area, said Vainio.
“We can’t shut down the area without destroying the housing,” she said.
Faro can’t market itself as a retirement community, added Vainio.
The narrow staircases in the abandoned houses would make mobility difficult, she said.
Designs of the houses can’t change so they should be marketed to young people — single or with a new family.
“Young people could live and save up money here and maybe they’ll stay here,” said Vainio.
Catering to mines hasn’t brought Faro many long-term benefits.
Doing it again isn’t the ideal situation, said Vainio.
“But if it’s long term, then it’s more viable than the town is now,” she added.
The town struggles to maintain its existing infrastructure.
On Dawson Drive, a thick, white hose runs from the fire hydrant to a nearby house.
It’s the residential water supply.
On this street, the homes are serviced with wood-stave piping, said Faro utility operator Dean Holmes.
It basically looks like an old wine barrel, held together with wire, he said.
It’s hard stuff to repair.
If the wire is cut and gets away, it recoils like a spring, said Holmes.
“It’s ancient technology,” he said.
“We upgrade it when we can.”
Faro is currently replacing the wood-stave pipe that services six houses on Dawson Drive.
Although many of the houses sit empty, all the infrastructure has to be maintained, said Holmes.
“We want to keep it in good working order to try and attract people back here.
“We only have so much block funding, but we have to try and maintain everything.”
With only 400 people living in a town built for 2,500, it’s hard to keep up, said Vainio.
“We only have 15 per cent of the tax base, but are maintaining 100 per cent of the infrastructure,” she said, citing sewage, water, streetlights and power.
Maintaining the sewer system, “that’s money,” she added.
“And there has been talk about shutting the rec centre, but that would hang us.
“I might as well toss away my hat.”
The town has started doing its own freight to cut costs, said Vainio.
If there is a meeting in Whitehorse, the truck comes back loaded.
“We fight for every penny,” said Holmes.
“They try and cut us back because of our population — there’s not enough people.”
To keep money flowing into town, Faro could also establish a permanent training centre for studies in mine reclamation or heavy machinery, said Vainio.
“We have the experience here, why not use what we have?” she said.
“We have 400 people who want to stay. We don’t want a handout, we want a hand up.”
The territory completed an issue paper — a sort of pre-feasibility study — on creating a centre of excellence in Faro.
The paper determined the idea has merit and warrants more study.
“There’s a good possibility it will be recommended to take it further,” said Vainio.
Already Faro’s long-term employment prospects are poised to improve as Ottawa begins cleaning up the lead mine.
The initial cleanup will cost up to $900 million over several decades.
Ottawa will spend several million dollars annually for another 500 years to contain the damage that can’t be completely rectified.