Getting serious about the future of mining in Yukon

This letter to the editor, written by Yukon NDP leader Liz Hanson, appeared in the Whitehorse Star on Friday, June 12 2015.

Over the last few months, more and more Yukoners have been openly discussing the future of mining in Yukon.

And it’s no wonder why: Yukon’s economy has clearly felt the downturn of the global commodity market to the point where there is only one operational mine in the territory. Another mine -- the Wolverine Mine near Watson Lake -- just ceased operations.

In short, the Yukon NDP has always supported mining projects whose operators follow the rules, hire Yukoners, buy from Yukon businesses, and clean up when they leave.

The Yukon NDP has a proven government track record of support for responsible mining in Yukon. For example, a Yukon NDP government created the Yukon Mining Incentive Program, a fund designed to support exploration activity. We have always been, and will continue to be, supporters of Yukon’s historic placer mining industry.

Locally beneficial, fair and sustainable mining will benefit Yukon’s economy and our communities. Let’s look at how the Pasloski government handled the now shuttered Wolverine Mine project.

Did Yukon Zinc, the mine’s owners, follow the rules? No. Yukon Zinc was initially granted an extension on its mine remediation security payments -- and the Yukon Party was either unwilling or unable to even enforce the extended deadline. Yukon Zinc missed a $350,000 October 31st security payment but were still allowed to continue operations until the mine closed.

Did the mine hire Yukoners and benefit Yukon businesses? Not enough. During its operational period, fly-in, fly-out workers represented 76% of Wolverine’s workforce. Only one in four of the mine’s employees was a Yukoner. And when Yukon Zinc filed for creditor protection, they saddled Yukon businesses with $4.3 million in outstanding debt.

Did they clean up when they were done? No. After Yukon Zinc filed for creditor protection, they didn’t follow their obligations under the temporary closure plan, causing the mine to flood. As of the government’s last public update, the Wolverine Mine has continued to flood -- potentially adding additional costs and requirements to the eventual clean-up.

We also need to examine the extent to which mining projects provide revenue for the Yukon government. The government’s early engagement handout for the Yukon Mineral Development Strategy says that, as a benefit of the mining strategy, it “provides revenues to government through royalties, taxes and fees. This in turn helps fund programs and services that benefit all Yukoners.” In the case of the Wolverine Mine, Yukon didn’t receive a single dollar in royalties -- and three quarters of its employees, as residents in other jurisdictions, won’t ever file income taxes here.

Yukon Zinc owes nearly $3 million in outstanding security payments -- and that’s before considering the cost of government infrastructure spending directly intended to benefit the Wolverine Mine.

We can do better than the Pasloski government’s ham-fisted, backroom approach to mining.

For one thing, the public doesn’t have access to that much information about mining’s economic benefits. A Yukon NDP government would do more to show Yukoners the economic impact of the mining industry, from exploration to production, and the extent to which Yukon businesses are benefitting from mining. For example, we would take a page from our neighbours in Alaska and publish annual reporting on the state of our mining industry so that Yukoners can see for themselves how mining benefits our economy.

We also view Yukon’s mining industry as an opportunity to build bridges, government-to-government, with First Nations in a way that also provides the economic certainty the mining industry wants. Thanks to the Devolution Transfer Agreement between Canada and the Yukon government, we have the ability to adapt to a changing world. The new realities of First Nations land claims agreements and the growing need to recognize Aboriginal rights on their traditional territories require positive, collaborative partnerships -- not lengthy and negative court battles. A Yukon NDP government would table modern, made-in-Yukon resource legislation drafted in consultation with First Nation governments, the mining industry and other community stakeholders.

Most importantly, the mining industry should know that as long as they play by the rules, they will have a willing partner in a Yukon NDP government.

When it comes to mining in Yukon, there is room for a meaningful partnership between the Yukon government, industry and First Nation governments -- but that relationship must be respectful, mutually beneficial and make environmental stewardship a top priority.


Photo: Mike Beauregard / flickr. Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.