A Northwestel location in Dawson City on July 20. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

A Northwestel location in Dawson City on July 20. (Dana Hatherly/Yukon News)

Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in withdraws support of Yukon fibre optic line project

Yukon government says project has not been halted despite demands by chief and council

The Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation has withdrawn its support for a backup telecommunications line for cell phone and internet traffic in the Yukon.

In a Sept. 6 release, the First Nation is asking to stop work on the project.

“Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government and citizens should reasonably expect meaningful involvement in projects occurring in our traditional territory and respect for the land and our sacred cultural and traditional places,” Chief Roberta Joseph said in the release.

“Neither of those things have happened.”

In a Sept. 8 interview, Joseph said the chief and council provided notice of their decision to withdraw from the backup line project last week in a letter to the Yukon government.

According to the Yukon government, the project is going ahead despite the First Nation pulling out.

A director for the territorial department confirmed he received the latest letter outlining Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in’s concerns earlier this week.

“It’s important that the job that is currently underway is not rushed or abandoned midway [because] it would create more environmental damage and risk,” said Priyank Thatte, the department’s director of sustainable infrastructure.

The 800-kilometre fibre optic line installation from Dawson City to Inuvik crosses the territory of eight First Nations and Indigenous groups in the Yukon and Northwest Territories, according to the Yukon’s department of Highways and Public Works. The $85-million project, which is already underway, will be leased and operated for two decades by Northwestel.

The territory currently relies on a single line.

READ MORE: Backup telecommunications line could go live in 2024

Joseph said the concerns raised by the First Nation related to the project’s impacts on the environment and lack of local benefits have been ignored by the Yukon government.

The release cites a “small fuel spill” at the project site and “significant disturbance” at a heritage site, adding that both preventable issues are being remediated by the contractor.

Joseph said the oil spill that occurred earlier in the summer just came to her attention last month. She said two heritage sites had been disturbed, although she could not elaborate on what happened.

“I think that we need somebody on the ground working there to have oversight,” she said.

The release notes that “promised benefits” for locals involving employment for Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in citizens and First Nation-owned businesses have not materialized.

In a June 2020 letter to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board’s Dawson City Designated Office, Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in said it had submitted comments focused on “traditional and environmental values” in the project area, particularly along the Dempster Highway.

In the letter, the First Nation also raised concerns related to the lack of certainty around adequate employment and economic opportunities, including that the “procurement process has not been designed to facilitate financial benefit to our community.”

A consolidated decision document dated Dec. 24, 2020 shows the Yukon government, Infrastructure Canada and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in as the decision bodies for the project.

In the document, the territorial department of Highways and Public Works consulted with the affected First Nations in the Yukon and Northwest Territories in preparing the project proposal. The Dawson City office recommended the project go ahead under 32 specified terms and conditions to mitigate “significant adverse environmental and socio-economic effects.”

In the release, the First Nation understands the importance of improved connectivity and said it has worked with the proponent over the years.

Joseph said the First Nation has reached out to the Yukon government to come up with potential solutions.

“But, you know, talk is cheap, and they need to be able to step up to the plate,” Joseph said.

READ MORE: First Nation development corporations buy fibre assets

Thatte said the First Nation has raised “really significant points” that the territorial department is now seeking to understand and address. He said some are known concerns, while others could be a matter of communication between parties and reporting.

Since the project started last year, Thatte said there have been three fuel spills. That includes the most recent 60-litre oil spill that Joseph referred to, which was the largest of the three incidents.

In terms of heritage resources along the Dempster Highway, Thatte said an incident happened in a piece of land where 90 per cent of the area had already been previously disturbed due to human activity in the area — however when the breach at the site was discovered, the work there was stopped.

An independent report on the matter has been done, and now the department is working with the Yukon government’s heritage branch and the affected First Nations, he said.

Thatte said the project has strategic value for future generations.

“Ensuring this project’s success in harmony with all First Nations along the route, that’s the primary goal of this project,” he said.

“We need this redundant telecommunication line because we saw what happened earlier in the summer [when] the line was cut and there was no internet or cell phone coverage here.”

Thatte said a meeting between the Yukon government and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in government representatives is set for next week.

READ MORE: Land erosion knocks out internet, phone service for 12 hours

Contact Dana Hatherly at dana.hatherly@yukon-news.com

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