Premier Sandy Silver claps during a speech by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during a visit to Whitehorse in 2017. Emails obtained by the News show that three government departments spent more than two weeks in November 2018 figuring out how to answer questions about the status of the Resource Gateway Project. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)

YG spent weeks figuring out how to answer a yes/no question about the Resource Gateway project

Emails obtained by the News show cabinet official stepping in, blocking release of prepared answers

Three Yukon government departments spent more than two weeks deliberating over how to respond to the News’s questions about whether the Resource Gateway project would be completed on schedule, despite having clear answers four days in.

And by the end, some of the answers provided were the complete opposite of the original responses.

Through access-to-information requests, the News obtained hundreds of emails sent between officials with the Department of Highways and Public Works (HPW), Department of Energy, Mines and Resources (EMR) and cabinet in November 2018.

The emails were in relation to the News’s request for updates on the Resource Gateway project, a multi-million-dollar initiative that aims to improve road access to mineral-rich areas in southeast Yukon and the Klondike.

The Yukon’s 2016 project application to Ottawa listed an estimated construction start date of June 2017 and end date of 2024, with the entire project to be completed by 2025.

Construction has yet to begin.

The News originally called EMR spokesperson Jesse Devost on Nov. 15, 2018 with questions about when construction was expected to start, whether federal funding for the project was in jeopardy, and progress on signing agreements with affected Yukon First Nations.

While it was bounced back and forth between spokespersons for EMR and HPW, the News did not receive comprehensive answers until Dec. 3, when it was given a phone interview with EMR minister Ranj Pillai.

However, the emails show that both EMR and HPW had clear, concise responses to the News’s questions by Nov. 19 in the form of a message by EMR assistant deputy minister John Bailey.

In it, Bailey quotes fives questions originally written up by HPW spokesperson Oshea Jephson, paraphrasing a News reporter, on Nov. 16.

“Is the project going to be completed in 2024? (She was looking for a Yes/No),” the first question reads.

“NO,” Bailey responds.

“How many agreements (with First Nations) have been signed?”

“Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation has signed off on an agreement respecting the Carmacks Bypass component of Gateway.”

“Why was the construction start-date pushed back two years?”

“We have had delays in the completion of the agreements with First Nations that are required before a final agreement with Canada can be completed.”

“Will the Yukon need to re-negotiate any funding agreements with Ottawa, should the completion date be beyond 2024? (Same for industry)”

“We will be advising Canada of the revised schedule when we complete the final funding agreement with them following completion of our agreements with First Nations.”

“If the project IS expected to be completed by 2024, can you explain how that will be achieved, considering the later start?”

“We expect to revise the schedule to accommodate the later start so that we will carry the project out over the same period of time. In the Agreement-in-principle with Canada, we were asked to advise them if we expected adjustments of more than 6 months of either the start of the project or completion date and will be doing so.”

Bailey’s answers then go through several rounds of approval and editing.

The answers are tentatively ready for release when, on Nov. 21, cabinet spokesperson Janine Workman, with whom HPW shared the answers, emails HPW’s manager of communications Brittanee Stewart and tells her to “please hold the response on this media request.”

By Nov. 23, the answers have changed so drastically that, in response to an email asking him to review a document outlining “the public responses to the media’s questions,” Bailey replies that “the messages seem fine though they don’t really address the questions.”

In his Dec. 3 interview, Pillai said that he did not know why it took more than two weeks for the News to get answers about the project.

The emails show that, beginning at least on Nov. 23, Pillai had direct influence how the News’s questions should be answered. EMR spokesperson Jesse Devost begins referencing “the Minister” in his emails on that date, at one point writing, “the Minister would like EMR to respond to the Gateway questions, not HPW…” and, later on, “The Minister would like us to say that we do have an agreement with LSCFN, and that it is proceeding through final approval.”

By Nov. 29, HPW’s Jephson had created a document answering the original questions along with several follow-ups.

The document appears to have cleared all approvals by Nov. 30 when, in an email to Madelon Wilson, senior advisor to HPW’s deputy minister, Jephson mentions that “CabComms” — cabinet communications — “is now stopping us.”

Workman emails Jephson that afternoon to confirm that Pillai would be doing an interview on Dec. 3.

Apparently unaware of the development, EMR’s Devost emails HPW the afternoon of Nov. 30, writing that “but our Minister would like the Gateway messages to be refined to communicate,” among other things, that “we are not behind schedule.”

At least six Yukon government employees, spanning EMR, HPW and cabinet office, are still working on refining “messaging” for Pillai the morning of Dec. 3.

By then, some of the answers are the opposite of the ones Bailey gave on Nov. 19.

“Are all the components of the Gateway project going to be completed in 2024?” reads one part of a Q&A prepared for Pillai.

“The present plan is to complete all of the components of the project in 2024.”

Contact Jackie Hong at jackie.hong@yukon-news.com

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