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COMMENTARY: Mining is just one interest among many for land planning

David Loeks & Katarzyna Nowak

Special to the News

Our recent commentary in the Yukon News, “Trust the public with the public interest,” provoked not one but two responses from the Yukon Chamber of Mines. We were reminded in stern language that mining is very important, that it provides good jobs, that it is not only a benefactor but was the foundation of the Yukon economy.

Yukon’s mining sector is good at telling us what they have already done and do, but they are less candid and introspective about what they might do better. Neither responding commentary addresses inadequate royalties, renewables, recycling, or reconciliation, nor do the industry rebuttals acknowledge the vast sums of public money spent cleaning up defunct mine sites such as Wolverine, Mount Nansen or Faro.

Our point was to emphasize wilderness as a value, to acknowledge that precious wildlife-sustaining habitats such as wetlands are at tipping points, and to advocate for more sustainable relationships with ecosystems.

Mining and mining roads are not the highest and best uses everywhere, and the Yukon Government should not be the sole decision-maker on how the Yukon’s land is to be managed. The Yukon public should have a prominent say about values through genuine, participatory land use planning. Yukon First Nations’ interests must be respected and reflected more sincerely in planning and regulatory processes.

This is not a radical proposal. Concerned constituents from Canada’s other territories and provinces are also seeking mining reforms; for example, the 69 recommendations from the British Columbia Mining Law Reform.

Mines in the Yukon must help address greenhouse gas emissions through use of renewable energy beyond hydropower. Mines in the Yukon must invest in recycling of minerals and metals. Mines in the Yukon must pay into improved royalty schemes. Miners in the Yukon must be willing to halt staking before land planning.

Unsettling to the Chamber of Mines might be our reminder that 80 per cent of the Yukon public agreed with enlightened land planning with wilderness values front and centre as recently as three years ago. These people vote and they cannot be ignored.

Unsettling, too, might be our contention that the Yukon government’s role as “decider” might not be valid. The principle of co-management, embedded in the Umbrella Final Agreement, is becoming better understood — in part through litigation which the Yukon government has lost.

The actual net benefit of the mining industry needs to be comprehensively evaluated and better understood by our government if we are to have sensible public policy. Yes, mining creates jobs and opportunities for service businesses. However, these benefits are offset, perhaps grossly offset, by very substantial direct and indirect taxpayer subsidies of mining industry activities. Moreover, mining jobs are inherently temporary, since mines play out. So, if the ride is to last, we must careen along from one development to the next.

Is this an acceptable way to steward Yukon’s natural resources, ecosystems, wildlife, land and water? Not when the Yukon’s mining industry has such a poor track record of safely decommissioning mines and rehabilitating damaged landscapes. Faro didn’t go well. Neither did Wolverine, or Clinton Creek, or Mount Nansen, or the Wellgreen property. We face more than a billion dollars in remediation costs and a need to oversee, for hundreds of years into the future, the containment of toxic material, a ticking environmental time bomb especially with climate change. And this is only a partial list of mines that dumped their losses on the public while mining executives siphoned off the Yukon’s valuable mineral legacy under the noses of government leaders and industry regulators.

Judging by its performance, the industry cannot be relied on to do things right for the health of people, wildlife, and the environment, or for the pockets of Yukon taxpayers. Compared to these liabilities, corporate mining donations of $100,000 here and there to worthy local causes is hardly impressive. The case worsens as the mining industry demonstrates its inability to adapt to changing conditions such as climate warming (thousands of cubic metres of untreated wastewater were discharged by Victoria Gold’s Eagle Gold Mine in April and attributed in part to “unseasonably warm temperatures.”)

Let’s for a moment revisit the words of Yukon Supreme Court justice Ron Veale about the abandoned Mount Nansen site, “This case stands as a painful reminder of the lasting and egregious damage that unscrupulous and unchecked profiteering can bring about in the mining sector. It is an embarrassment to Canada, Yukon and the responsible mining community” adding that “it’s not the first time in recent Yukon history that a mining company has conducted itself in bad faith, collapsed into bankruptcy and abdicated its responsibilities to the governments of Canada and the Yukon.”

A report issued in June by Mining Watch Canada describes how Canadian mining companies put profits over communities and workers during the COVID-19 pandemic. A month after this report was issued, two Canadian experts published an article chronicling intensified conflicts between Indigenous communities and extractive industries during COVID-19; yes, the Yukon government gets mention for allowing mines to continue operations during the pandemic despite letters of concern from Na-cho Nyak Dun and White River First Nations. A month after these letters, Victoria Gold announced it was ramping up production at its Eagle Mine.

Virtually every case of declining populations of big game has been due to increased access caused by the mining industry. Millions of public dollars have been spent retrieving fuel drums left by exploration companies across the Yukon back country. Collectively, as a society, and as an industrial sector, we must do better.

As we gear up to recover from the pandemic and seek to mend our society, industry-Indigenous and industry-public relationships need a rehaul.

There is a place for responsible mining — just not everywhere. We call on our territorial government to take seriously people’s insistent demands for developing a green, sustainable economy, on par with how actively they support the mining industry, in spite of its track record. The public should have a substantive voice in deciding where and when development is in the public interest. Land use planning is the logical and democratic process for this.

The Trudeau government has just announced $15 billion for climate action and green jobs. How will the Yukon mining sector contribute to these goals? Mining as it has been done up to now in the Yukon, surely cannot be part of the plan.

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