Mining boom slights Kaska businesses

WATSON LAKE Tim Moon has spent two decades building his construction company for a moment like this.

WATSON LAKE

Tim Moon has spent two decades building his construction company for a moment like this.

The Ross River resident hoped the recent flurry of mineral investment in southeast Yukon, a region with a long history of boom-and-bust industries that failed to leave a lasting legacy in the surrounding communities, would finally bring some money into the region.

A local Kaska contractor who would invest locally and keep capital in the region, he thought he’d make an excellent partner for any of the big mining companies scouring the region.

When Yukon Zinc announced it was going ahead with its zinc and silver mine an hour and a half’s drive away from Ross, he thought he found the opportunity he was looking for.

But after months of knocking on doors, he hasn’t seen a single tender for work at the Wolverine mine.

“If there even were tenders, I’ve never seen nothing for it,” says Moon, sitting outside of Watson Lake’s job fair on Saturday.

Moon’s company does reclamation, stripping, land clearing and water diversion, to name a few jobs. He’s received multiple contracts at the site of the former Faro mine and has trained local people to work for him.

But Arctic Construction, a Fort St. John construction company, is getting all the contracts at Wolverine.

Back in Ross River, his two Cats, two rock trucks, three hoes, four dump trucks and a couple graders, sit idle.

He’s flown down to Vancouver to meet with Yukon Zinc officials, who told him to talk to Arctic Construction.

After months of phone calls, he hasn’t been allowed to bid on a single project.

“It’s pointless,” he says. “I’m not going to waste my time anymore.”

Back at the job fair, several national and multinational resource companies are touting their pledge to leave a healthy legacy for the region. They know Watson Lake and its surrounding communities have dealt with several fly-by-night companies and a popular refrain is that this time it’s going to be different.

Arguably, that would mean leaving residents with fatter wallets than they had before the boom. In other words, keep some capital in the area instead of letting it flow Outside.

That promise isn’t being fulfilled.

“It’s pretty frustrating,” says Moon. “They talk about putting something back into the communities, and I’d be putting back into the communities.”

He’s not the only one who is skeptical about the lip-service being paid to locals.

Linda McDonald, a Kaska woman who works for the Liard First Nation, isn’t shy about what her people have had to endure through so-called “economic development.”

“It’s gone on for years,” she says, citing the Alaska Highway as the beginning of unfair investments in the region.

“In terms of the long-term benefits, like putting money into something like education or social programs, that never happened before.”

“It’s a rape-and-pillage kind of feeling.”

The Cassiar mine and other operations did bring paycheques over the years, but the local First Nation governments were not prepared with how to deal with the consequences.

“We do know that jobs are important, but you have to have a long-term vision and I don’t think the long-term vision is something industry is willing to do,” she says.

“Supposedly this is all about a partnership, but it really isn’t,” she says. “It’s an attempt to get in and take advantage of the situation.

“There hasn’t been sharing of the resources at the community level.”

The only answer is to be tough this time around, she says. When agreements for mining are signed with the Liard First Nation, there has to be more than just jobs.

“We still have a lot of clout,” she says. “We’re protected by the highest law of the land in terms of our aboriginal rights and title.”

The Kaska have protested unfair industry before. The put a stop to logging in the region for which they weren’t consulted 10 years ago. They also blocked traffic on the Alaska Highway when there were plans to build a sawmill in the middle of Upper Liard.

“Sometimes you just have to practically lay in front of a bulldozer to stop them,” she says.

It’s tough to get a straight answer from locals about the best way to leave a healthy legacy when the only job opportunities come from boom-and-bust industries.

Chief Liard McMillan wants to see dividend cheques put into a fund that can be administered by the First Nation.

“Then, with policy input, the community can decide what to do with it,” he said.

That would help prevent people from “snorting their paycheques up their nose,” as McDonald put it.

She thinks a big part of the solution is strengthening cultural programs for the Kaska.

Building a sense of self-worth for locals is to best way to the community to advocate for its interests, she says.

“Our spirit is dying and we really need to reconnect to who we are,” she says.

“Going back to the culture is one of those long-term visions.”

Meanwhile, some of the Kaska people Moon trained have been hired by Arctic.

They’re not happy about working for the Outside company and would rather work for a Kaska company, he says.

But the mine has some of the only high-paying jobs in the region.

Moon is arranging a meeting between Kaska business owners and the several chiefs in the region to discuss the issue.

Until then, he’s only hearing empty promises.

“That’s why I’ve been building my business here,” he says. “So that when something happened, we’d be able to work on the mines.”

“It’s a joke.”

Contact James Munson at jamesm@yukon-news.com.