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Put mining on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic, say Yukon First Nations

Some Yukon First Nations want the territorial government to put a stop to any mining or staking in the territory during the pandemic. 

Mining camps with fly-in workers pose risk to communities, says Na-Cho Nyak Dun chief

Na-Cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn wants all mining operations put on hold during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Mike Rudyk/CBC)

Some Yukon First Nations want the territorial government to put a stop to any mining or staking in the territory during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The Na-Cho Nyak Dun First Nation says Victoria Gold's Eagle Gold Mine operations, with hundreds of workers on a rotating shift schedule, are an enormous risk to the community. 

The mine is about 85 kilometres from Mayo. Many of the hundreds of workers come from outside Yukon.

Na-Cho Nyak Dun Chief Simon Mervyn wrote an open letter to Premier Sandy Silver last week, saying that having mines open during the pandemic puts the nearby community of Mayo in danger, particularly the elders who live there.

"We are calling on the Yukon government to immediately implement stronger measures to protect remote and Indigenous communities such as [Na-Cho Nyak Dun]," the letter reads.

"We cannot protect our citizens alone; we need your help."

Mervyn's letter goes on to say that mines be put into care and maintenance mode until the crisis has ended. He also asks for a temporary halt on staking.

Last week, Victoria Gold company president John McConnell insisted the Eagle Gold Mine would keep operating, and he offered assurance that there are protective measures in place at the mine.

He said steps are in place to keep employees safe, including a mandatory 14-day period of self-isolation before arriving at the remote mine site, and a four-week-in/four-week-out crew schedule (instead of the usual two-week rotating schedule).

Don't take care of the industry. Right now it's about the people.​​​​​​- Janet VanderMeer, White River First Nation lands director

The company is also using air travel from private charter companies at designated pickup points in western Canada, to get workers to the mine. McConnell said that would reduce travel on commercial flights.

The Yukon government issued a notice last week for miners arriving in the territory for work. It said anyone arriving in Yukon must self-isolate for 14 days, including people who work at mines or exploration camps.

"Workers cannot conduct regular duties in camp or at a mine while in self-isolation," the notice reads.  

This week, the territory published new interim guidelines for work camps during the pandemic. The guidelines explain, among other things, how to manage workers suspected of having COVID-19, how to self-isolate at a work camp, and the importance of physical distancing, cleaning, and disinfecting. 

'It's just playing with fire'

Janet VanderMeer, the lands director for the White River First Nation in Beaver Creek, Yukon, said her First Nation fully supports the Na-Cho Nyak Dun, and says the Yukon government needs to pause its pro-mining thinking right now.

"It's just playing with fire, and we don't have time to play those games ... We are talking about all of the Yukon here," she said.

"There are no precautions but to go home, stay in your home to be safe, and take care of your families — don't take care of the industry. Right now it's about the people."

The Eagle mine site, north of Mayo, Yukon, in 2017. Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society, says the gold isn't going anywhere. (Victoria Gold)

Lewis Rifkind, mining analyst with the Yukon Conservation Society, agrees. He said the gold isn't going anywhere.

"This whole idea, that we should all stay home for some reason does not apply to the resource extraction industry, and in the Yukon that means the mining industry."

Rifkind said he's in favour of allowing local workers at mine sites right now, but not those from outside the territory. He asks why Yukon would take the risk.

As of Monday, Yukon had five confirmed cases of COVID-19.

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