White River fights mine project

The White River First Nation wants the Yukon Supreme Court to overturn the Yukon government's approval of a mineral exploration project. Tarsis Resources is searching for copper, gold and silver.

The White River First Nation wants the Yukon Supreme Court to overturn the Yukon government’s approval of a mineral exploration project.

Tarsis Resources is searching for copper, gold and silver on the First Nation’s traditional territory. In September, the company received approval for advanced exploration work over the next five years.

That’s despite the advice of the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, which recommended against allowing the project to proceed.

The board warned that exploration work could erode the First Nation’s traditions of hunting, trapping and fishing, and harm the fragile Chisana caribou herd. In its 81-page report, the board concluded these impacts could not be mitigated.

The First Nation filed for a judicial review of the exploration approval this week. White River is “asking for respect,” said Janet Vander Meer, lands co-ordinator for the First Nation.

Allowing the project to proceed violates the First Nation’s constitutional rights, the court petition says. And the government did not properly consult with them when making its decision, the document asserts.

Tarsis’ White River property is about 70-square kilometres. It can only be reached by helicopter.

One hurdle remains for the company to clear before it starts advanced exploration at the site. Tarsis applied for a Class 3 permit in March. The government has not issued one yet, said Jesse Devost, spokesperson for Energy, Mines and Resources.

“My grandpa walked that land,” said Vander Meer. “All my ancestors before me walked that land. The significance of knowing where you’re from, the significance of knowing where your history is, is so beautiful. And for that to be disrupted, or gutted, or ripped, or stripped or for some of those mountains to not exist anymore is beyond anything I can explain in words,” she said.

White River has co-operated with mining companies in the same area in the past, said Vander Meer. The First Nation tried to work with Tarsis, but did not find the negotiations respectful, she said.

In 2010, the company began staking and exploration activities. In January, the company told the First Nation that it would apply for a permit to start Class 3 mining activities. These activities could include building new or upgrading existing access roads, clearing trees, building mines and using more than 1,000 kilograms of explosives in a 30-day period.

White River is particularly worried about the Chisana caribou herd. The herd numbered around 1,800 in the late 1980s, said Vander Meer. By 2000, it had dropped to less than 450.

It now numbers around 700, said Vander Meer. White River has put a voluntary ban on hunting the herd since 1994.

This project could interfere with the First Nation’s hunting, trapping and fishing grounds. Losing that area would be like losing its grocery store, said Vander Meer.

The First Nation is also concerned about how the project could pollute water in the area, which it values more than gold, said Vander Meer.

White River and company tried to reach a deal where the company would fund the First Nation’s land use studies. The agreement would have also provided First Nation members with jobs in the mine. But no agreement was reached, said Vander Meer.

In the end, the First Nation did its own traditional land use study to determine how members, and their ancestors, used the land. But this study was not comprehensive because the First Nation did not have enough resources, the court filings say.

The First Nation submitted its concerns to the company, and later to the assessment board. The company did not originally include the First Nation’s comments in its application to the advisory board.

The period for seeking views and information ran from April to June. It was extended twice at the First Nation’s request. The First Nation also made filings on the public registry.

On July 30, the assessment board recommended against the project. On Sept. 5, the director of mineral resources rejected the decision. White River did meet with the government before it made this decision, said Vander Meer.

The First Nation wants the government to declare it will recognize its constitutional rights, the filing says.

White River is one of the territory’s smallest First Nations, “but we have a strong voice, and we have no problem projecting that,” said Vander Meer.

The First Nation has not signed a land claim agreement, and has no intention of doing so, she said.

“If we’re not protecting our land, if our land is gone, our culture is gone,” she said.

The Yukon government declines to comment on the case because it is before the courts.

Company representatives could not be reached before press time.

Contact Meagan Gillmore at