10 years after Yukon bear mauling, disagreement about whether it was preventable

Jean-François Pagé was working for an exploration company near Ross River, Yukon when he was attacked and killed by a grizzly sow in April 2006.

Jean-François Pagé was killed by a grizzly in 2006, while staking claims near Ross River

Jean-François Pagé had an 'an incredible zest for life,' said one friend. He was killed by a grizzly bear while staking claims near Ross River, in April 2006. (Submitted)

Ten years ago this week, 28-year-old Jean-François Pagé was tromping through the bush near Ross River, Yukon, staking mining claims for his employer, Yellowknife-based Aurora Geosciences.

He was, by all accounts, a dynamic young man — adventurous, sociable and with "an incredible zest for life," according to his friend, Yukon MLA Kate White.

But that late April day in 2006, Pagé took a wrong step. He came too close to a grizzly den and was killed by a sow protecting her cubs.

It's uncertain when, exactly, Pagé realized he was in trouble. He was not carrying bear spray, and evidently did not have time to radio for help. 

Pagé had come within metres of a den that contained two cubs. It's believed the sow killed him to protect the cubs.

Pagé's death had an immediate and devastating impact on his family and many friends. It also sparked a dispute and disagreement between his employer and the Yukon Workers' Compensation Health and Safety Board (YWCHSB) that has never been fully resolved.

Was Pagé's death preventable? Had his employer done enough to ensure his safety in bear country? 

All workplace accidents preventable, says board

The YWCHSB answered those questions a year after the mauling by filing negligence charges against Aurora Geosciences. The board alleged the company failed to properly train or equip Pagé for the job.

Kurt Dieckmann of the board remembers hearing about the accident soon after it happened, on Apr. 28, 2006. It was, coincidentally, the National Day of Mourning, for people who have died on the job.

Kurt Dieckmann of the Yukon Workers' Compensation Health and Safety Board says all workplace deaths are preventable. (Claudiane Samson/RCI)

"It hit me very hard, very personally," Dieckmann said.

He himself was once a field worker in the exploration industry, and he knew a lot of people still doing the work, so Pagé's death "hit very close to home."

The negligence charges against Aurora Geosciences were later stayed, but that doesn't mean YWCHSB ever changed its perspective on what happened. 

Today, Dieckmann chooses his words carefully, but readily offers that any workplace death — including Pagé's — is preventable. 

"It absolutely is. It's just how you do your work," he said.

"If the hazard is properly assessed, you're properly trained, properly motivated, and you have the right equipment, I do believe that it is preventable, yes."

'Accidents can happen'

​Gary Vivian, the president of Aurora Geosciences, does not agree.

'There is a danger about working in the wild,' said Gary Vivian, president of Aurora Geosciences, Ltd. (Claudiane Samson/RCI)

"Awareness is critical, but there's times where accidents can happen," he said. "There is a danger about working in the wild."

"The fact that it was so early in the spring, and [the bear] basically came out of her den with no notice whatsoever, was the biggest problem. I don't know what else J.F. [Jean-Francois] could have done, to be quite honest."

Vivian said Pagé's death had a "huge impact" on his company and did lead to some changes — but not in how the company trains or equips its employees. He doesn't believe that was a problem.

He said Pagé was equipped with bear spray, but was simply not carrying it at the time. He also said Pagé had a radio, an axe, and other safety equipment. 

"I would never say that we didn't properly train our people. Did we keep absolute perfect documentation of everything we did when we trained? Probably not. We're very good at that now.

"You have to have documentation that proves you're safe, that's how [YWCHSB] looks at you."

A plaque at the Aurora Geosciences office in Whitehorse commemorates Jean-François Pagé. (Claudiane Samson/RCI)

Dieckmann agrees that things are different now in the exploration industry, and he hopes that means nobody else will die as Pagé did.

"Now, people wouldn't contemplate going into the field without carrying bear spray, or things like that, no matter what time of year it is," he said.

"People used to think that bears hibernate, you don't see them this time of year. Well, we now know that you can actually encounter bears any time of year."

Family, friends still mourn

On Saturday, Pagé's family and friends in his home province of Quebec will gather to mark the anniversary of his death.

It's been a decade, but for many people, including Kate White, the pain has not gone away. 

"It's about that hole, that gap that I feel, and that I know his family feels, that his friends feel," she said, tearing up.

"You know, it's easy for people to go through life and not realize that when you say goodbye to someone in the morning, there's no guarantee that they come back at the end of the day."

With files from Claudiane Samson