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White River First Nation calls for panel review of Yukon’s Coffee mine

‘Passing papers back and forth will not allow us to convey our issues and concerns’
The White River First Nation is calling for Goldcorp’s Coffee mine to be sent to a full panel review because it’s concerned that the project is being pushed through the screening process too quickly. (Courtesy of Kaminak Gold Corp.)

The White River First Nation is calling for Goldcorp’s Coffee mine south of Dawson City to be sent to a full panel review by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board, the highest level of assessment available in the territory.

The First Nation says it’s concerned that the project is being pushed through the screening process too quickly and that the First Nation is not being adequately consulted.

“How can YESAB properly review a project such as this without a full panel review? Ours is an oral history and culture which comprises our traditional knowledge; passing papers back and forth will not allow us to convey our issues and concerns through our oral history,” Chief Angela Demit said in a statement.

“Yukoners will be taking on a significant liability licensing this project, and we are facing significant infringement on our rights, culture and sense of place…the full extent of which has yet to be determined.”

WRFN’s lawyer, Robert Freedman, said WRFN, which does not have a signed self-government agreement, is concerned about protecting its rights and culture.

“What we’re really talking about are their unextinguished aboriginal rights that haven’t been settled by treaty or otherwise,” he said.

White River has been raising concerns for years with Canada, the Yukon government and the assessment board about how White River fits “into this process that’s largely designed for final agreement nations and based on the UFA map,” he said.

At hearings that could come with the panel review, there would be steps like cross examination for “really testing evidence,” he said.

Last year the territorial and federal governments announced plans to spend $360 million on the Yukon Resource Gateway project including work on roads to the Coffee site.

“Given that this is a mine and it’s potentially the first of many with the Gateway project and roads, we just don’t see screening as an adequate way — when you’re potentially opening up an area — to deal with White River’s concerns,” Freedman said.

Yukon Premier Sandy Silver has promised work won’t go ahead without the okay from First Nations.

“We don’t want the public or the government to think this (the mine) is a done deal and White River is forced again to go to court,” Freedman said. “We think there’s a way of doing this properly that safeguards everyone’s interests if White River’s concerns are taken into account.”

Chris Cormier, general manager of the Coffee project, said Goldcorp believes it is complying with the process laid out in the act. “In comparison to other projects in the territory we believe that it’s appropriately scoped within the process,” he said.

The Coffee mine is in the middle of YESAB’s adequacy review stage. Last year the process was stopped when the board ruled Goldcorp had not adequately consulted with First Nations.

Freedman said WRFN still does not believe the consultation has been adequate.

“White River’s view is by and large their application doesn’t consider impacts on rights, does a very poor job if at all of considering impacts on culture and does so through a non-Indigenous lens.”

Cormier said the company is reaching out to all the First Nations.

Early this week Goldcorp signed an agreement with the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation laying out “the economic opportunities, training, environmental protection as part of the Coffee project which falls 100 per cent in their territory,” he said.

Cormier said Goldcorp has also answered all of the questions the board had for it during the adequacy stage. There’s no timeline for when the board could decide if it has everything it needs to move to the next step.

If the Coffee mine was to go to a panel review it would only be the second mine in the territory to get there. The Casino mine was sent for a panel review 2016. Casino Mining Corporation has said it hopes to have its proposal resubmitted to the assessment board by the end of 2018.

Since no Yukon mine has ever gone through the process yet YESAB spokesperson Rob Yoemans couldn’t say exactly what a panel review for Coffee would look like.

When the board announced plans for Casino’s review it promised public hearing and “quasi-judicial authorities,” meaning it can subpoena witnesses, call evidence and make orders.

Under the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Act a review panel can be requested by a First Nation, whether it has a self-government agreement or not, if the First Nation gets consent from both the federal and territorial government.

Energy, Mines and Resources Minister Ranj Pillai said he wouldn’t comment on what the board should do in this case.

“I would say that we’ve seen thorough project reviews at the executive committee level and really there has never been a panel review of a project of this size,” he said. “I think that Goldcorp has shown leadership with their relationships with First Nations governments, I truly do.”

Like Cormier, Pillai pointed to the deal signed between the mining company and Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in. He said the Yukon government is also working on “consultation plans” with all the First Nations in the area, including White River.

The plans will be “built to ensure that there’s a shared understanding of how our government needs to fulfill consultation obligations,” he said.

Pillai said he hasn’t heard from the First Nation government specifically asking for consent to request a review. The first he heard of it was through the press release, he said.

Pillai wouldn’t comment on whether the First Nation would get that consent if they asked for it.

Even without an official request, a panel review could also be required by the executive committee if it decides “the project might contribute significantly to cumulative adverse environmental or socio-economic effects in Yukon or that the project is causing or is likely to cause significant public concern in Yukon,” the act says.

Contact Ashley Joannou at

This story has been updated to include comments from Ranj Pillai.