Yukon hopes federal infrastructure dollars will pay for mining roads

The Yukon government is hoping Ottawa will pay $250 million toward road upgrades that would benefit three possible major mines in the territory - Coffee, Selwyn and Casino.

The Yukon government is hoping Ottawa will pay $250 million toward road upgrades that would benefit three possible major mines in the territory – Coffee, Selwyn and Casino.

The funding application is the largest of a number of new infrastructure projects the Yukon is submitting to the New Building Canada Fund, according to Allan Nixon, assistant deputy minister of Highways and Public Works.

According to last week’s federal budget, which focused heavily on infrastructure, money from the fund is going to be paid out more quickly than was planned under the previous Harper government. And Yukon is hoping to cash in. The mining road application, called the Yukon Resource Gateway Project, would see the Yukon government pitch in $112 million and industry contribute another $109 million toward roadwork in the Dawson and Nahanni ranges.

Construction would happen gradually, from 2017 to 2024, according to the application.

It would begin on the Goldfield Roads, a group of interconnected roads south of Dawson that access Kaminak’s Coffee mine site. Upgrades to the Freegold Road, which travels northwest out of Carmacks toward the Casino site, would start in 2018, as would construction of a bypass road around Carmacks.

Upgrades to the Nahanni Range Road are slated to start around the same time. That road extends from the Campbell Highway north of Watson Lake to the Northwest Territories border, and provides access to the Selwyn mine site in Howard’s Pass.

The last pieces of the project are the reconstruction of the Casino Road, which connects the Freegold Road directly to the Casino site, and the construction of a 52-kilometre connector road between the Coffee and Casino mines. The connector wouldn’t be built until 2022, according to the application.

The government estimates the project will create 2,645 jobs in Yukon and 1,939 jobs Outside. It also predicts a $483 million increase to Canada’s GDP from the roadwork.

Of course, the project depends on the three mines being approved, which isn’t a sure thing.

Selwyn and Coffee haven’t started the environmental assessment process yet. And Casino was recently referred to the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board’s highest level of review, partly due to concerns about the size of its proposed tailings pond.

Still, Nixon said this is the right time to get ahead of the curve.

“This is about the long-term future development,” he said. “If those projects ever did come to fruition … you’re going to need infrastructure to support them.”

He also stressed that the roads won’t just benefit those three mines. The Goldfield Roads, for instance, provide access for the placer mining industry. And Golden Predator’s 3 Aces project is located along the Nahanni Range Road.

Nixon said the government’s schedule for the project is only tentative. He said no work will happen on the roads that will mainly service the big mines – the Casino Road, for instance – until those projects have YESAB approval.

There’s no timeline for when the federal government will make a decision on Yukon’s application, Nixon said. But he’s hoping for an agreement-in-principle by the end of the summer.

“We’re pretty confident that we’ve built a good business case,” he said. “I’m feeling as confident as I can be, understanding that there’s a huge demand on federal funding and nothing’s guaranteed.”

But Lewis Rifkind of the Yukon Conservation Society questioned whether Yukon should be spending so much public money on roads that are largely meant to serve a few potential mines.

“Why are tax dollars being used to subsidize these roads?” he asked. “Why isn’t all the funding coming from industry?”

Samson Hartland, executive director of the Yukon Chamber of Mines, argued there’s a “shared benefit” to be gained from this project. He was part of a delegation from the Yukon government and the mining industry that recently met with federal officials in Ottawa to discuss this and other projects.

“I think it was very, very valuable time invested when we went,” he said.

But the biggest knock against the project may be the fact that it isn’t exactly green.

Hartland said the federal government stressed its interest in green infrastructure during the meeting. He said Ottawa is interested in projects that benefit First Nations communities and the environment.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigned on providing more money for green infrastructure, and the latest federal budget includes $5 billion over the next five years for water, wastewater and green infrastructure projects.

The New Building Canada Fund also provides money for green projects, including wind energy, solar power and small-scale hydro.

But so far, it seems Yukon’s priorities may not match that federal focus on going green.

Nixon said the other big projects his department has submitted to the New Building Canada Fund are repairs to the Nares and Nisutlin bridges, as well as the construction of passing and turning lanes on the Alaska Highway south of Whitehorse.

The Department of Community Services, which oversees infrastructure priorities, wouldn’t tell the News what projects it has submitted for funding.

But it did develop a five-year infrastructure plan last summer, which outlines the priorities of each community and the territorial government.

Many of the communities focused on upgrades to roads and water and wastewater systems. A number also included small-scale green energy developments. The Kluane First Nation and Mount Lorne, for instance, both mentioned possible solar projects.

But at the territorial level, there was no mention of any larger-scale green projects.

Yukon Energy spokesperson Janet Patterson also told the News that the Crown corporation doesn’t have any shovel-ready renewable energy projects at the moment.

Still, Nixon said it’s not possible for Yukon’s infrastructure priorities to align exactly with Ottawa’s in every application.

“Very few projects are going to nail that,” he said. “We just don’t think, for the North especially, that that’s a reasonable approach.”

Contact Maura Forrest at