White River First Nation wants all mining activity to cease in the Yukon, including in its traditional territory, to reduce the risk of COVID-19 spreading. (Maura Forrest/Yukon News file)

White River First Nation calls on premier to stop mining activity

An influx of miners in the area is causing concern

White River First Nation wants all mining activity to cease in the Yukon, including in its traditional territory, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Now I’m pissed off,” Lands Director Janet VanderMeer told the News on March 31. “In our vast traditional territory we want everything stopped, so we can put the proper focus and emphasis on the health and safety of our people, our most vulnerable, our elders.”

Not doing so, she continued, will bring in waves of miners to the community, introducing a greater risk of people contracting COVID-19.

Newmont Mining Corporation’s Coffee Gold, an exploration project, is in its traditional territory. The Minto Mine is, too.

Dr. Brendan Hanley, the Yukon’s chief medical officer of health, announced the fifth case of COVID-19 on March 30. Focus has shifted to managing clusters.

A letter was sent to Premier Sandy Silver on the same day, urging him to suspend mining operations until the pandemic blows over, VanderMeer said.

“We feel that this government is pro-mining,” she said. “I fight with them everyday. I don’t wanna fight with this government anymore.”

She said miners are already starting to come into the area.

“It’s happening now,” she said, noting that exploration and operations ramp up around springtime.

“Everything that we’re doing with the Yukon government is status quo,” she said, adding that her department continues to receive Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment applications.

“Nothing has stopped with mining on every level,” VanderMeer said, noting that this doesn’t jive with the premier calling a state of emergency last week.

Simon Mervyn, chief of the First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun, is also calling for action.

“The measures taken to date are insufficient,” he wrote in a letter to Premier Sandy Silver on March 25, referring to measures the Yukon government has taken so far to protect remote and First Nations communities. “Given the dire consequences that COVID-19 presents for the Yukon, and for NND citizens, far more is required.”

Mervyn wants mines to be put into care and maintenance “until this crisis has passed,” as well as a temporary halt to prospectors entering the First Nation’s traditional territory.

“Economic imperatives cannot be placed above the health and safety of our people,” the letter stated.

In an emailed statement on March 31, Yukon Minister of Energy, Mines and Resources Ranj Pillai wrote that the decision to suspend or postpone mining operations is up to companies to decide.

The statement noted that the chief medical officer of health’s office “is in frequent contact with First Nations and community offices to ensure their communities are protected from this virus” and that “strict practices” are now “in place for workers traveling to mine sites.”

“The most important aspect is that any worker coming to a mine site or camp must be virus free,” he wrote.

The government is working with mining companies to ensure they have plans in place so their Outside workers can self-isolate for 14 days after arriving in the territory, Pillai said, giving the example of shift workers for the Minto Mine currently self-isolating at a Whitehorse hotel before continuing on to the site.

Contact Julien Gignac at julien.gignac@yukon-news.com

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