Ross River Dena are weighing the pros and cons of the proposed Howard's Pass lead-zinc mine, as they prepare to vote on a "socio-economic participation agreement" later this winter.
After months of negotiations, the Ross River Dena Council and Selwyn Chihong Mining Ltd. reached a preliminary agreement last month. It offers the Kaska, particularly the Ross River Dena, opportunities for training, employment and a share of the mine's profits.
It also brings a whiff of opportunity to Ross River, one of Yukon's smaller communities. According to the 2011 census, the average annual income in Ross River is just $31,000.
Over 90 percent of the roughly 350 residents are Kaska Dena. They've gone through some tough times in the last 50 years — seeing their children taken off to residential schools and experiencing the social and environmental devastation of the Faro mine.
Selwyn Chihong's proposed mine in the Howard's Pass area is enormous. It will eclipse the Faro mine, which was once the world's largest open-pit lead-zinc operation and also developed on Kaska traditional territory.
This time, the Ross River Dena won't watch helplessly from the sidelines as their land is developed without their permission or participation. This time the Canadian courts — and the mining industry — recognize that the Kaska own the resources.
No more status quo
Chief Brian Ladue recalls a crucial meeting on July 20, 2014, just after the historic Supreme Court ruling that granted the Tsilhqot'in First Nation in B.C. title to a 1,700 square kilometre area of traditional land outside its reserve, marking the end of a decades-long battle.
"We asserted ourselves," recalled Ladue. "We pretty much told [Selwyn Chihong's] CEO and the company at that time that from this day forward, things are going to change in the Ross River area. It's no longer going to be the status quo."
Ladue said the company got the message.
"We see a major, major jump in what in what the company is offering now. It's significant," Ladue said.
The question is whether it's significant enough to win the support of the Kaska, many of whom remember the impacts of the Faro mine.
Natasha Peter, 25, has worked for Selwyn Chihong for the past few years in environmental testing. She hopes to train as a registered nurse and she appreciates the training opportunities the company is offering her. But she's still apprehensive about the mine.
"It's my home country, it's our land, we hunt off of it. Once the mine goes into production, it's going to be destroyed. I guess that's the only thing that I'm worried about, for the next generation down the road," Peter said.
Howard's Pass is about 250 kilometres northwest of Ross River and is home to the headwaters of the Pelly River, the main watercourse used by the Kaska for transportation, hunting and fishing.
People like Mary Maje, haven't forgotten how the Faro mine affected the land, water, and animals.
"Our elders are worried about the environmental cleanup, the closure plan. Once we have a mine, we worry about if it's going to end up like Faro, so it's a lot on people's minds here in Ross River," Maje said.
Even people who weren't born when the Faro mine was operating have learned its lessons.
"I'm just thinking, it just doesn't benefit us, land-wise. I don't think it should go," said Robbie Dick, 24, about the Howard's Pass project. "There's going to be environmental impacts and social impacts for sure, because the mine is so huge."
Faro is also on the mind of elder Amos Dick. He wants assurances that tailings dams for the new mine will be secure and don't give way.
"Down the Faro mine? Lot of game die, you know. Some of the bull moose, They shot bull moose, he got no kidney, nothing. Poison water!" Amos Dick said.
'I myself am afraid,' says chief
Chief Ladue understands the hesitation over such a large project. He said Ross River desperately needs the jobs but protecting the land remains the uppermost concern.
"I myself am afraid of some of the potential impacts," Ladue said. "The concern is there, definitely, and I'm very glad our people have that concern because you can't put a price on the environment, on the water, on keeping those things intact," Ladue said.
"This is huge. I mean, they're proposing nine pits over a period of 11-plus years. That will include a haul truck every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day and so the impacts will be felt." Ladue said.
"And that's one thing that we put to that company, is that you're going to have to prove to our people without a shadow of a doubt that it'll be safe, or that extreme measures will be taken to ensure that."
Ross River Dena members will vote on the Howard's Pass project on Feb. 8.