A former executive director of the Klondike Placer Miners’ Association doesn’t think there’s any chance a Tr’ondek Hwech’in neighbourhood in Dawson City will be flattened so miners can get at the gold underneath.
“It’s a pity that it wasn’t dealt with before the subdivision was built, that would have been the best case scenario, but it has gone this far,” said Randy Clarkson.
“I don’t think there’s a chance in hell that the houses are going to be moved or anything like that. I think this is just an appeal by the claim owners to seek some kind of compensation.”
Clarkson, who was not speaking on behalf of the association, said the two miners in question are entitled to compensation as owners of the claims.
“It’s a case where the claim owners have claims that predate the TH final agreement and I think they need to be compensated for those claims.”
News broke last week that Michel Vincent and Michael Heydorf applied to the Yukon Surface Rights Board asking for an order that the First Nation remove all buildings, sewer, water and power lines from the subdivision.
The First Nation has said it’s not going anywhere.
The eight claims have been around since before devolution, the First Nation’s self-government agreement, and before the subdivision was even on the drawing board.
When Tr’ondek Hwech’in signed its final agreement in 1998, the land became category B settlement land. That means the First Nation owns the rights for the surface, but the claim holders still have subsurface rights.
When those two rights collide and the two sides can’t come to an agreement, the Yukon Surface Rights Board is called in to rule, which doesn’t happen often. The last time the board issued a decision was in 2013.
For now, it has deemed the application is incomplete and has given the miners time to provide more information.
Clarkson said he’s confident the process will work the way it’s meant to.
“The final agreement was agreed to by all the parties, the three governments involved. They set up the surface rights board to deal with exactly this kind of dispute.”
One reason Vincent and Heydorf’s claims ended up in the middle of a dispute is because of how old they are. Current legislation doesn’t allow new claims to be staked within municipal boundaries.
“If people are worried about miners staking up their homes, that’s not possible,” said Bob Holmes, the director of the territory’s mineral resources branch.
Even if someone does own a claim and a deal can be struck with the First Nation for access, the Yukon government has ways to control mining plans before it would issue a permit.
“It doesn’t alter the miner’s right to mine, and his sole right to the mine and minerals, but the government can certainly regulate the area that’s mined, the methods, the timing, to make sure that there’s no significant effect on people and the environment,” he said.
The Placer Mining Act bans mining if there is a building or home standing, no matter how old the claim is.
The controversy, combined with the pending election, has all three political parties weighing in.
Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Scott Kent wouldn’t say if he thinks Tr’ondek Hwech’in citizens need to worry about losing their homes.
“These are processes set up in the Umbrella Final Agreement,” he said.
“It would be a disservice for me to speculate on any of the outcomes at this point.… I think it’s important to let these established processes play out.”
Kent also downplayed suggestions that the territory’s current mining legislation needs to be modernized.
“I don’t believe it’s antiquated. I certainly don’t believe that the free entry system is antiquated. It’s something that’s very important to our party.”
Since devolution, the territory has had the option of creating its own legislation around resources instead of using, and sometimes tweaking, the pre-devolution rules.
Kent said the Forestry Act has been rewritten, but work has yet to start on a review of the Lands Act.
Meanwhile, mining laws — like the Placer Mining Act or Quartz Mining Act — have both received some updates over the years, though nothing approaching a complete overhaul.
The devolution agreement allows the Yukon government to come up with an alternative to a full-scale review of the laws.
As of last year, representatives from all 11 self-governing First Nations and the Yukon government meet once a month in a “less formalized process,” said Jean Paul Molgat, director of EMR’s strategic initiatives branch.
The group discusses mining-related concerns and can make recommendations related to regulatory or policy changes, he said.
First Nations can bring up topics “like how exploration is conducted on First Nations settlement land for example, or how mineral production is carried out on settlement land,” Molgat said.
He said the agreement the group signed doesn’t allow him to talk about what recommendations have been made or what concerns are slated to be worked on in the future.
NDP leader Liz Hanson said what’s being done is not enough.
“Quite honestly, it would be hard put to think it’s not just an attempt to placate and keep people busy while business goes on as usual.”
She said a proper review of the legislation would ensure modern legislation is in line with First Nations final agreements.
“I think that what you need to do is pull together the parties who have the most interest in this,” Hanson said. “It’s the citizens of this territory, it’s the other level of First Nations governments with whom we have binding agreements.”
A Liberal government would offer claim holders cash for their claims in areas of “overlap” like the Tr’ondek neighbourhood, said Leader Sandy Silver.
“Even though you do have the right to mine, there are all these other issues that are going to really break your bank if you decide to go down this road and push your point.”
The government would offer to pay miners what they put into working on a claim, he said.
“As opposed to being silent, or as opposed to using mining as a wedge issue to divide this community, we would come in and offer one other alternative that the other two parties are afraid to do.”
Hanson wondered what the principles would be to guide that plan.
“One of the last things you want to see is the public, the citizens, becoming the insurer for potential risks taken,” she said.
Kent wondered how much it would cost.
Silver doesn’t have a figure, but he said potential court cases are more expensive.
Contact Ashley Joannou at firstname.lastname@example.org