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Yukon's mining future is bright, but needs balance, industry leader says

A lot has changed since Pierre Gratton visited the Yukon about a decade ago. "It looked awfully dark," recalled the president of the Mining Association of Canada.

A lot has changed since Pierre Gratton visited the Yukon about a decade ago.

“It looked awfully dark,” recalled the president of the Mining Association of Canada. Most people depended on either government jobs or social assistance programs, he said.

“And it was kind of inconceivable at the time that this territory, the home of the Klondike, with such a rich mining history could recover,” he told the businesspeople and politicians gathered at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre on Tuesday. Gratton was in town to speak at an event hosted by the Yukon Chamber of Mines and the Yukon Chamber of Commerce.

But the territory’s three operating mines prove the Yukon has recovered, he said.

Devolution has played a big role in helping the territory succeed, he said. And settled land claims have given companies more certainty. The industry is the largest employer of aboriginal Canadians in the country, he said. But it needs to do more work with First Nations, he said.

“Your story has been an incredibly successful one,” he said.

And it’s an important one.

There are 220 producing mines and 33 smelters and refineries across the country. The association estimates $140 billion in mining projects are proposed in Canada. The 320,000 industry workers make 30 to 60 per cent more than those in other sectors, he said. Minerals make up 23 per cent of Canada’s exports, he said.

Between now and 2050, more mineral resources will be consumed than ever before in world history, said Gratton. Much of this demand comes from China. The country consumes 40 per cent of the world’s metals, he said. And it should continue to grow, he said. When it does level off, India will be right behind it. Its economy is about where China’s was a couple decades ago, he said.

Economic uncertainty in the United States and Europe presents challenges, but the Yukon’s proximity to Asia gives it an advantage, said Gratton.

Mining is one of the most regulated industries in the country, said Gratton. Air- and water-quality standards have risen over the past few decades. Along with national regulations, the Mining Association of Canada requires members to produce reports on such things as managing tailings, energy and greenhouse gases, aboriginal and community outreach, safety and health, crisis management and biodiversity. This program is unique in the world, and an independent party reviews the results every three years, he said.

“Environmental awareness and concern that society has, well, we’re part of society too. So the people who are working in the industry are people who have gone to school, been trained in environmental science, and are working within the companies to try and develop better environmental outcomes, and care a lot about it,” said Gratton.

But it’s not so simple, said Lewis Rifkind, mining co-ordinator of the Yukon Conservation Society. While Gratton noted that mining companies need to have closure plans in place before the mines open, Rifkind has never seen one he considers adequate, he said.

The conservation society does not oppose mining, it just wants it to be sustainable, said Rifkind.

Exploration can damage the environment more than mines do. “Once you stake, you preclude any other type of land use,” he said. “Mining shouldn’t go first.

“Mines aren’t forever. There’s no such thing as a sustainable mine. Once the ore body is exhausted, the mine goes,” said Rifkind.

If people want to enjoy the Yukon’s wilderness, they need mines, Gratton told Tuesday’s audience.

“It is a beautiful part of the country. You have a number of important protected areas here. A lot of the people in the mining industry love the outdoors, too. You have to pay for those protected areas, because they don’t generate much economy. If you want conservation, you need economy,” he said.

But the environment needs to be considered before industry is permitted, said Rifkind.

He agrees the world needs mines. People in China and India want to “live like us” in North America and Western Europe, he said.

And for the people who have them, the jobs are good, said Rifkind.

“Economic opportunity anywhere in the Yukon is somewhat limited. We’re not a big city. You can’t pick and choose your jobs. And in the smaller communities, sometimes mining is the only game in town,” he said.

But workers’ lifestyles need to be supported, and that puts more strain on housing, energy and medical services, said Rifkind.

And environmental damage can take away jobs from wilderness guides and tour companies, he said.

Mining companies do bring social and economic benefits, he said. “But you can’t get away from the fact that they are ripping a huge hole in the ground to extract metals,” said Rifkind.

“We have to do it right,” he said, “and part of that means not doing it everywhere.”

Contact Meagan Gillmore at