Tr'ondek Hwech'in cut support for Dempster Highway fibre optic line

The Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Government in Dawson City, Yukon, is pulling its support for the Yukon Government's Dempster Highway fibre optic line, and calling for all work to be stopped until concerns are addressed.

The First Nation wants work to stop until concerns are addressed and resolved

A piece of the fibre line along the Dempster Highway. The 800-kilometre fibre optic line currently under construction will follow the Dempster Highway from Dawson City, Yukon, to Inuvik, N.W.T. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

The Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Goverment is withdrawing its support for the Yukon Government's Dempster Highway fibre optic line.

Construction began last summer on the 800-kilometre line, which will follow the Dempster Highway from Dawson City, Yukon, where the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in are based, to Inuvik, N.W.T. The goal is to provide communities with a backup in the event of a service disruption, providing more reliable internet and cellphone services.

Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in Chief Roberta Joseph said she wants all work to cease for the time being.

"We've been engaged in this project since the inception," Joseph said. "We had discussions to ensure that there were benefits for Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in citizens and our companies, but this hasn't really panned out."

Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation Chief Roberta Joseph in a file photo from 2018. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Joseph gave a few examples.

"The contractor is required to provide 3,500 hours of work. There's only been four hundred hours of work in total," she said. "Last year we had one citizen working. This year I don't think we have any citizens working and some of our companies don't really have any contracts or have not made the procurement with the contractor."

Joseph also shared some environmental concerns that have arisen recently.

"There was about 100 litres of fuel spilled," Joseph said."We received a report on it some time later, after the fact. We understand it was remediated but our people, Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in citizens and our elders, consider the Dempster region as a sacred cultural integrity area. We want to ensure that any projects that are being considered in that region take all the care that is needed to ensure that these types of things do not take place."

Joseph said two sites consisting of graves and artifacts were also disturbed during the line's installation, and that this wasn't reported to anyone.

A construction site along the Dempster Highway. (Chris MacIntyre/CBC)

"These types of things could have been avoided if we were a part of the project," Joseph said. "We did identify them in the [Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board] application and these were also identified to the contractor to avoid these areas but they were not flagged.

"To me, the contractor isn't taking it serious how important it is not to disturb heritage sites along the highway."

Joseph said with all of these incidents occurring this early in the process, the long term gain isn't worth the cost.

"We had a meeting with the minister and raised these issues. Our staff continues to raise these issues. We've written letters and there's been no effort on the Yukon Government side. There's been no political effort to rectifying these issues."

Government 'committed'

The Yukon government issued a statement in response to the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in announcement. 

In it, cabinet communications advisor Renée Francoeur writes that "discussions and engagement have been ongoing with the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation government since the planning for the project began."

The statement also claims that "as communicated to Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in, mitigations are in place that were supported by various environmental reviews, including the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board process, and through consultation on this project.

"We are committed to continue to meet with Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in First Nation to address their concerns and discuss potential solutions," the statement reads.

The government said the project remains a "high priority." 


Chris MacIntyre is a CBC reporter in Dawson City, Yukon.