First Nations dig in heels over YESAB review

First Nations need a bigger say in which mining projects get the green light, said Ruth Massie, Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

Yukon’s First Nations are refusing to sign off a review of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act.

First Nations need a bigger say in which mining projects get the green light, said Ruth Massie, Grand Chief of the Council of Yukon First Nations.

“What’s missing is the commitment to work together and collaborate, government to government,” she said during a news conference on the heels of this week’s Mineral Exploration Roundup conference in Vancouver.

First Nation governments are swamped with mining proposals, leaving some “very, very overwhelmed,” said Massie.

Unless things change, prospective miners can expect longer waits as First Nations seek deadline extensions for project reviews, she said.

“We don’t want to be seen as the ones slowing down the application process for the industry,” said Massie.

The council wants the Yukon government to consult with affected First Nations before making its final decision to approve or reject a project. But Mining Minister Brad Cathers has rejected this plan, saying it’s “inconsistent” with the law as it stands.

Not so, according to a briefing paper prepared by First Nations. Rather than having to amend existing laws, such an arrangement “could be set out in a policy or agreement,” it states.

First Nations aren’t looking for a veto over projects, the paper states. But First Nations do want “constructive dialogue and discussion” so that they’re treated as partners, rather than mere stakeholders as they now see themselves being treated.

First Nations are currently able to air their concerns throughout the assessment process. But that’s not the “meaningful role” that chiefs envisioned when they signed the Umbrella Final Agreement in 1993, said Massie.

It’s up to the territorial government to accept, reject or modify the recommendations of the assessment board. This is now done without any discussion with affected First Nations.

If the government were to waive recommended environmental safeguards without consulting an affected First Nation, “then the entire process may be tainted,” warned a 2009 report prepared by the team which conducted a five-year review of the assessment process.

First Nations also need more funds to properly vet mining projects, said Massie.

“When you have one staff trying to give adequate responses to every applicant, it’s very time consuming,” she said.

Ottawa provides each First Nation with approximately $100,000 annually to review mining projects, according to the 2009 report.

But that’s not enough, said Massie.

“We receive applications on a daily basis,” she said. “When you have one staff trying to give adequate responses to every applicant, it’s very time consuming.”

And First Nations also want to see a future review of the Yukon’s assessment regime. Currently, there’s only an obligation to carry out the review, which is now in its final stages after a round of public consultations in 2009.

“It’s good to have a review every five years,” said Massie. “What’s current and effective today may not be current and effective five years from now.”

First Nations are asking mining companies to throw their support behind their proposals. So far “four or five” mining companies have written to the Yukon premier and federal minister regarding the matter, said Massie.

The quality of environmental assessments could slump if First Nation governments aren’t given more support, said Stephen Mills, chair of the Yukon’s assessment board.

First Nations without land claim agreements – which consequently have fewer staff and resources on hand – face the biggest challenges keeping up, he said.

One is the Liard First Nation.

In a May letter to the federal government, Mills warned that unless the Liard First Nation received more support “the quality of information in assessments may be compromised, assessment timelines may be delayed, and there may be a risk of otherwise unnecessary referrals being made to the executive committee as a result of the designated offices having insufficient information to determine whether a proposed project will have significant adverse environmental or socio-economic effects.”

The Liard First Nation hasn’t been happy with the assessment board’s work on Selwyn Chihong Mining’s proposed massive lead-zinc mine near Howard’s Pass.

In a court challenge, it argued that assessors overlooked environmental concerns involving the discharge of wastewater into surrounding creeks when it approved plans for advanced exploration work.

But in July, the Yukon Supreme Court dismissed the First Nation’s case, with Justice Ron Veale ruling the First Nation had been adequately consulted to date.

It’s not just First Nations struggling to keep up. Territorial departments are also taking longer to respond to project proposals, said Mills.

If these strains continue and the assessment board is expected to conduct more studies in-house “that would be a real budget challenge in the future,” he said.

But, for now, “it’s all still quite manageable.”

The board saw a 20 per cent increase of project proposals in 2011. Much of that rise is explained by nonmining projects, with solid-waste facilities and park operators seeking renewed licences en masse.

But a growing number of mining projects are bound for the board’s executive committee, where the most complex projects are vetted.

The board’s staff has been increased modestly in recent years, with additional support provided to designated offices. Assessors have also tried to speed up reviews by spelling out what information companies are expected to submit.

And the board has done a cumulative assessment of the impact of a mineral exploration boom in the White Gold area.

Similar studies are in the works for the Freegold Road area, near Western Copper and Gold’s Casino project and the area north of Mayo where ATAC Resource’s Rau project sparked a staking rush.

Contact John Thompson at

johnt@yukon-news.com

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