Tr’ondek Hwech’in chief vows to fight placer claims on settlement land

A pair of Dawson City miners want to dig for gold on settlement land of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, land that's home to around 40 families.

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A pair of Dawson City miners want to dig for gold on settlement land of the Tr’ondek Hwech’in First Nation, land that’s home to around 40 families.

Michel Vincent and Micheal Heydorf are asking the Yukon Surface Rights Board to order the First Nation remove all buildings, sewer, water and power lines from the land in the Tr’ondek subdivision in Dawson.

For now the board says the application is incomplete. The miners will have 60 days to provide more information before the board decides whether to hear the case.

The surface rights board was set up mainly to deal with disputes over accessing or using Yukon First Nation settlement land.

At the centre of the dispute is settlement land obtained as part of the First Nation’s final agreement with the Yukon government. The Tr’ondek Hwech’in chief says she has no intention of going anywhere.

“We’re not moving off our land and (TH citizens) have nothing to worry about,” Roberta Joseph told the News Friday

In their submission, Vincent and Heydorf say as the owners of the eight claims in question they have the right to mine there. They gave the First Nation a July 15 deadline to clear off.

Since the deadline “Tr’ondek Hwech’in has been occupying (the land) unlawfully,” according to their application to the board.

“We believe that Tr’ondek Hwech’in has no special right based on their Class B land claim to dictate anything concerning what we may do on our aforementioned claims,” the document says.

Neither miner could be reached for comment.

The First Nation, not surprisingly, sees things differently.

“We gave up a lot for the small amount of land that we have in our traditional territory,” Joseph said. “As part of giving that up, it is the responsibility of the other governments to ensure that they dealt with (land conflicts) prior to signing the agreement.”

The claims were staked between 1975 and 1989, more than a decade before the First Nation signed its final agreement.

The dispute over this piece of land dates back to at least 2002. Surface rights board documents from that year suggest the First Nation offered Vincent $10,000 for the eight claims. Vincent wanted $10,000 per claim.

The board’s executive director, Ian Pumphrey, said the 2002 dispute was set to be heard by a panel, but both sides agreed to put the process on hold to negotiate. Eventually the file was closed, he said.

In a July letter included as part of the application, the First Nation’s lawyer Daryn Leas suggests it would cost the miners a pretty penny if they did go ahead with mining.

Under the Yukon’s Placer Act the First Nation “will seek adequate security and full compensation from any person who intends to undertake mining activities on … any parcel of its settlement land,” the letter says.

Leas doesn’t say how much money that would be, other than to say it is “significant” considering what the land is being used for now. A press release from the First Nation says it “has invested several million dollars in planning, development, and construction of the subdivision that nearly forty families call home.”

It’s not just the First Nation that owns infrastructure on the land, Leas writes. Northwestel, Yukon Energy, the Yukon government and the City of Dawson all have assets there, the letter says.

Joseph said the conflict is proof the territory’s mining legislation needs to be updated.

“It’s outdated and it needs to be updated to be consistent with our final agreements here in the Yukon as well as modern situations that we have in the Yukon,” she said.

If Vincent and Heydorf are able to update their application to the board’s standard, the conflict could eventually be heard by a panel of adjudicators.

Joseph said the First Nation is prepared to fight if it comes to that.

“We have an obligation to our citizens to protect our land, to protect our aboriginal rights and that’s what we’ll have to do.”

Contact ashleyj@yukon-news.com

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