Original Published on Jun 23, 2022 at 08:05

By Lawrie Crawford, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Chief Dylan Loblaw of the Ross River Dena Council slammed the Canadian and Yukon governments for making their joint decision on the contentious Kudz Ze Kayah mining project only one day after two Kaska First Nations had submitted a comprehensive 48-page document on the impacts and effects the project would have on the people and environs of the Kaska territory.

Both Canada and Yukon heralded their joint decision in separate but similar news releases on June 15, marking the end of the environmental and socio-economic assessment process on the Kudz Ze Kayah project.

On June 20, Loblaw issued a news release, calling the decision a “blatant disregard for our inherent Aboriginal title, rights and interests.”

He says the two governments assured the affected First Nations that their views would be fully considered. In the end, it took less than 24 hours to release the same document which Loblaw contends, “contained virtually the same terms that they had developed, without Ross River’s involvement, during fall 2021.”

READ MORE: Territorial and federal governments at odds over Kudz Ze Kayah mine project

Unceded territory

The Kudz Ze Kayah mine is a proposed project 115 kilometres south of Ross River, in the traditional territories of the Kaska, including Liard First Nation and Ross River Dena Council.

The 10-year operation to extract copper, lead and zinc that will process 5,500 tonnes of ore per day was recommended to proceed in 2020.

The proposed mine site is in the middle of critical caribou habitat. The project was found likely to incur significant adverse effects to water resources, wildlife, traditional land use, economy and human health and safety.

In the screening report, Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board’s (YESAB) executive committee decided that “these significant adverse effects can be eliminated, controlled or reduced through the application of mitigation measures” and recommended the project proceed.

Canada did not agree and sent it back for reconsideration in January 2021, requesting the executive committee give further consideration to the issues of Aboriginal rights and provide more information on how water and caribou would be protected.

Premier Sandy Silver objected at the time, saying local decisions should be made locally.

Posted documents on YESAB’s website and timelines described in the 2020 screening report and the 2022 decision document show the project’s laborious journey towards approval.

In March 2021, the YESAB committee found themselves deadlocked in a tie vote over whether the project should go forward. In April 2021, the four Kaska chiefs sent the first of two letters asking the committee to reject the project, due to the profound importance of the project area and the impacts to their Aboriginal rights. They also pointed to extensive cumulative effects due to current and historical activities in the area surrounding the project and adverse effects of climate change. Without outright rejection, they requested the project go to a panel review.

READ MORE: YESAB deadlocked in tie vote over Kudz Ze Kayah mine project

Map of caribou and seasonal habitat ranges from 2020 screening report for Kudz Ze Kayah project. (Screenshot)

Mining context

The Kudz Ze Kayah project is immediately adjacent to the abandoned Wolverine mine, where the Yukon government is currently seeking a contractor for a $4-million per year care and maintenance contract.

For the Kaska people, the project follows the long legacy of the abandoned mines of Faro, Sä Dena Hes, Ketza River and Cantung, which all sit on the traditional territory and surround Ross River and Watson Lake.

First Nations in the Yukon have long been opposed to development that affects caribou population with examples such as the Southern Lakes caribou recovery program or continued efforts for the protection of the Porcupine caribou herd in the north.

The map of the Finlayson caribou herd shows the mine’s location straddling habitat areas for both core calving and core rutting areas. Caribou are sensitive to habitat disruption from noise and susceptible to death from collisions with vehicles.

The chiefs are concerned that cumulative effects from one mine leads to more mines. Already, the mineral-rich area is targeted for a $105-million investment to improve two sections of the Robert Campbell Highway as part of the Gateway project — paving the way for further development.

Project promises mitigation in ‘breadbasket’

The June 15 decision document acknowledges the “receipt of a letter on June 14, 2022, from LFN and RRDC that reiterated the concerns and questions that were raised throughout the Project assessment and consultation during the decision phase.”

What the federal and Yukon governments refer to as “a letter that reiterates concerns,” Loblaw calls a “comprehensive 48-page submission.”

The concern stems from the importance of the region.

In the Ross River release, YESAB executive committee member Lawrence Joe is quoted as saying the area “can be described by science as a nexus of life cycles for caribou … essential for rutting and calving, and warrants the highest level of consideration, precautions, and protection.”

He continues to say that “Traditional knowledge refers to the Kudz Ze Kayah area as the breadbasket, a sacred area that you can harvest in, but not live there. It is a sensitive place – a sanctuary for animals and people that are hungry.”

Contrast this to the language in the decision document referring to the caribou as FCH, the government shorthand for the Finlayson caribou herd.

The decision document states, “The mine site is located in important habitat for the FCH. The decision bodies recognize that there will be adverse effects caused by the project on the FCH, specifically disturbance, mortality and the loss and fragmentation of functional habitat.”

To counter these disturbances, the 2022 decision document calls for the following: a caribou oversight committee will be established; a report will be written using western and traditional knowledge; baseline data will be collected; a monitoring and mitigation program will be developed; and a management plan will be created.

Loblaw calls the decision and its recommendations “a disappointing move by the Yukon government and the Government of Canada.” The release says he will be holding meetings in the next few days in an attempt to “advance the long-outstanding, and strongly committed to, reconciliation with Indigenous Nations.”

— With files from Haley Ritchie

This item reprinted with permission from Yukon News, Whitehorse, Yukon