The Yukon government is still “endeavouring” to have the Yukon Resource Gateway project completed by the original 2025 end date despite construction now a year-and-a-half behind schedule, says the territory’s minister of energy, mines and resources (EMR).
However, he said he also thinks the Yukon could look for an extension on the federal funding that makes up more than half of the project’s $468 million budget.
In an interview Dec. 3, EMR Minister Ranj Pillai acknowledged that the territory is playing “catch-up” on the project, which aims to improve road access to mineral-rich areas in southeast Yukon and the Klondike.
The project application the Yukon sent to Ottawa in January 2016 lists an estimated construction start date of June 2017. That date was amended to June 2018 when Infrastructure Canada formally committed to contributing up to $247.3 million from its New Building Canada Fund in June 2017. Both the project application and federal government records show a construction end date of 2024, which coincides with the end of the fund, and the application lists a full completion date of 2025.
“We’re endeavouring to stay on the timeline that’s been put in front of us and if we get to a position where we have to change the timeline … or request (to Ottawa) to change the timeline, then that’s something that we would not be uncomfortable doing,” he said, adding that the federal government appears to be “flexible” with the project cash flow.
Pillai’s interview came more than two weeks after the News first approached the Yukon government for updates on the project. The News spent that time being passed between EMR and the Department of Highways and Public Works (HPW) without receiving full answers to its questions.
Pillai would not give a firm answer on whether he thinks construction will actually be completed by 2024, saying that he thinks “portions” of it will be, but also refusing to say that all construction would not be completed by then, either.
Pillai said he anticipates geotechnical work will get underway in Carmacks in the summer of 2019 for the Carmacks bypass portion of the project, which, as the name suggests, aims to create a bypass for the section of highway that currently runs through the community.
Agreements with Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in and Liard First Nation pending, it’s also possible that work could begin on the Nahanni Range and Goldfields portions of the project in 2019, Pillai added.
In an email earlier this month, HPW spokesperson Oshea Jephson said that construction is anticipated to start in 2020.
While that’s past the written start dates, Pillai said that he thinks it’s important to look at why the government is playing catch-up in the first place — namely, the state of the project when the Yukon Liberals picked it up from the Yukon Party following the fall 2016 election.
The Yukon Party did not complete a number of tasks scheduled for 2016, Pillai said, including a number of environmental assessments and getting letters of support and then reaching agreements with the four Yukon First Nations whose traditional territories would be most seriously impacted by the project.
“None of that was done,” Pillai said, adding that, when he entered office in December 2016, he found just one letter of support.
“That whole year of work, the Yukon Party … got a letter. Not one agreement in place. And all the assessments that they were supposed to do to go through (Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board) so they could start construction? None of it was done.”
In an interview Dec. 4, Yukon Party MLA Scott Kent, who served as the Minister of EMR and HPW under the last territorial government, accused Pillai of trying to shift the blame for “what appear to be his own shortcomings.”
“I mean, it’d be nice if he stopped blaming others and started working on some of this stuff,” Kent said.
“This specific project, it has an approve date of June 22, 2017, which is when Minister Pillai was in charge. It’s got a forecasted construction start date of June 1 of this year, which, you know, is a deadline that they’ve missed.”
He added that the Yukon Party was “surprised” by the fact that agreements with First Nations weren’t in place by the time Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited in September 2017 to formally announce the federal government’s contribution to the project.
Asked about his own party’s inability to meet several project timelines, such as completing environmental assessments, Kent said reaching agreements with First Nations had been the priority before other work began and that negotiations were underway in 2016.
(Reached on the phone Dec. 3, Little Salmon/Carmacks First Nation Chief Russell Blackjack said the first he heard from the Yukon government about the project was shortly before Trudeau’s 2017 visit.)
Kent also said that the Yukon Party, for the last quarter of 2016, was in “either in an election or in a transition period,” but that, regardless, Pillai has now held the position of EMR minister for well over two years now.
“We are where we are and we want the blame-game to stop,” he said, “and I’d like to see the minister, you know, give us an update on where we’re at with the agreement negotiations and get some shovels in the ground next summer.”
With files from Ashley Joannou
Contact Jackie Hong at firstname.lastname@example.org