The river delta that flows into Little Atlin Lake will soon turn into a hive of activity. Skeins of migratory birds will arrive at the site, joining moose herds and grayling swimming against the river’s current. It is a place revered by the Tagish Nation, which has used the site for thousands of years.
“It’s a traditional campground, where families used to meet and stay there for sometimes a couple of weeks to a month because there’s fresh food,” said Danny Cresswell, field operations manager with the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, whose people collectively have historic ties to the site.
“The moose come down. They pick out one that they want, they hang it up and the families share what they need to share. There’s always the spring hunt for the rabbits, muskrats and the grouse in the area. It’s all there.”
These days, the site is host to a decades-old cabin, one the First Nation takes umbrage with.
“Our best camp spot is down there,” he said. “Now, no one will camp in that area.
“It just kind of ticks you off. It’s kind of heartbreaking.”
To Cresswell, the cabin is a testament to outdated laws imprinted by colonialism. But according to the claimholder, the cabin is entirely legitimate and on a valid mining claim.
How the cabin came to be is key to understanding what appears to be a longstanding problem, one that has some Yukon First Nations calling on the territorial government to respect rights and title by overhauling outdated legislation that dates back more than a century and better enforcing rules out on the land.
Even though the cabin is not far from an access road, there’s a strong chance you’d never find it through the dense forest, unless guided.
The two-storey cabin is replete with windows, a woodstove and what appears to be a radio antenna on the roof. It appears to be set upon spruce trunks. Toward the water are beached boats and, farther down, a dock.
There’s a fresh layer of snow, and no tracks lead in or out of the site. Save for a depression near a road in the area, nothing appears to indicate mining activity. There seems to be no heavy machinery or other accoutrements of the trade.
“That’s a house, that’s not a cabin.” said Cresswell, who often visited the site in his youth, before the cabin was there.
The people who built the cabin originally staked placer claims, he said.
But he believes that’s just a ruse, and that it’s never been about mining.
According to GeoYukon, a Yukon government online database, there appear to be nine placer claims in the vicinity.
The cabin is located on one of the claims held by Jordan Lavigne, who confirmed to CBC News that he inherited three claims from his grandparents, who built the cabin.
Mining records show the claims were transferred to Lavigne in 2019, 2020 and 2022.
“The last couple years I’ve been doing some panning and digging up some dirt to get it inspected,” Lavigne said. “I just like having a place I can go with nobody around. I consider it as a getaway.
“The cabin was all done to code,” he added. “There was a permit pulled on it.
“It was all done by the book, all legit.”
An application for renewal of a placer mining grant, rubber stamped April 19, 2022, shows a list of plans to drill a collection of six-foot holes on the three claims.
Asked what he makes of the First Nation’s concerns, he said, “We’re not hurting nothing out there, right? The only thing we’ve done in the last three, four years is clean it up, because you get people leaving firewood and garbage all over the place.
“I love it out there. I partially grew up out there.”
Concerns have been raised in the past about these claims and how they’ve been used.
According to mining records obtained by CBC News, a 1999 complaint was lodged in the Whitehorse Mining Recorder’s Office by Jeffrey Gilbert, who has neighbouring claims in the area, against the former claimholders, Lavigne’s grandparents.
“The above claims are being used a private real estatement development rather than miner-like purposes,” the written complaint states. “I believe [the claimholder] has sworn a false affidavit when recording these claims as they were not intended to be used for miner-like purposes.
“I also believe that he has grossly overestimated the value of assessment work done on the claims.”
CBC News wasn’t able to contact Gilbert, who filed the complaint. It’s unclear what the outcome of the complaint was.
Asked about Gilbert’s allegations, Lavigne said it’s a matter of appearances.
“It’s probably, definitely what it looked like, when it was getting built,” he said. “But my grandparents did a bunch of prospecting out there. They grew old, right, so they ran out of time to actually do stuff out there. They retired. That was their retirement.”
Claims in good standing, government says
Whether the territorial government could or would do anything about this cabin may be an open question.
A spokesperson with the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources told CBC News the claims are in good standing. Some have “excess credits” meaning they can be renewed for up to three years without any work being done on them. The northernmost claims, where the cabin is located, are valid until October 2023 and 2026.
While someone is allowed to have a camp on a placer claim, it needs to be associated with mining, says Jesse Devost, who’s with the department. Building a permanent dwelling — say, a cabin with a foundation — would be unlawful under a Class 1 notification, a permit for early level mineral exploration.
“In short, there are no activities that can be carried out on a placer claim without a specific authorization in place,” said Devost, adding that would include having a cabin on skids.
Cresswell said these particular claims are immune from changes because they’re grandfathered — meaning, they are not affected by negotiated land claim settlements.
The GeoYukon database shows some claims overlap with part of the First Nation’s settlement land, which spans more than 1,554 square kilometres, several swaths of which flank the southern portion of Little Atlin Lake and are routinely monitored by the First Nation.
According to mining records, three of the claims were originally staked in 1995, which predates the Carcross/Tagish First Nation’s 2005 final agreement.
John Thompson, spokesperson for the government’s mines department, says the cabin was also built before the territory’s mining land-use regulations came into effect. Thompson said the Department of Justice is being brought in to help sort out what happens next.
Thompson said the government alerts a First Nation when a new placer claim is staked — or proposed — on Settlement B land, where Yukon First Nations own surface rights, and on land that hasn’t been withdrawn by the territorial government.
Frank James, director of Heritage, Lands and Resources with the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, told CBC News in an email the territorial government has a duty to consult over proposed activities over all its lands. In turn, he said, the First Nation offers its feedback, which include interests related to land use, the treaty and wildlife.
'We just should know about it'
At the edge of Little Atlin Lake, morning light refracted through fresh snow falling from spruce boughs creates bursts of shimmering colour.
Nearby is Niko Helm, who holds a pair of snowshoes. He’s an auxiliary ecological and environmental monitor with Carcross/Tagish First Nation. He hadn’t seen the two-storey cabin until last week.
Asked what the cabin means to him, he said, “It’s a bit of a surprise to me. I’ve been exploring more around the Southern Lakes, in our territory and stuff, and [I’m] just realizing how many cabins are around these lakes.
“Ideally, I think it would be nice if [the owners] did contact C/TFN — just kind of let people know that they were on the land, instead of going somewhat behind our backs through a mine claim.
“I think we just should know about it.”
Elder Patrick James feels similarly.
“In my younger years, my dad and all them would tell us stories about the area, eh, and just certain times of the year that’s very important there, and that’s when he says, ‘Don’t go near there, just leave it alone.’
“This is where we need more communications between the two governments, territorial and First Nations governments, even the federal government, because there are areas they don’t know anything about, whereas with First Nations people, information has been passed down for thousands of years.”
Cresswell’s ringtone is set to Ennio Morricone’s theme song for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
He oversees a team of environmental monitors who often track Ski-Doo and other trails that wind through hundreds of kilometres of wilderness. They keep tabs on things, the health of wildlife, the water. They also assess whether humans are abusing the land.
According to Cresswell, there are at least five questionable cabins on the First Nation’s settlement — and traditional — lands, adding that number is a conservative estimate.
Cresswell suspects people are building cabins on placer claims because the regulations and laws are easy to finagle. He said people build cabins up on skids to make them legitimate, just like the one near Little Atlin Lake.
“Anybody listening to this interview and doesn’t know this can run out and stake a claim,” he said.
Some First Nations, including the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, want the territory’s free-entry system reined in to align with final agreements or done away with completely.
Dating back to the Klondike Gold Rush, the system allows people ample opportunity to stake claims over vast expanses of land, except parks, First Nations settlement land and already-staked plots.
Anyone 18 years or older, regardless of citizenship, can go out on the land and drive stakes into the earth. Requirements include brush cutting between posts and recording the claim with the government. To keep the claim in good standing, the staker needs to do work on the plot worth at least $200, each year. Banked excess credits can be applied in future years instead of doing work. Should claims lapse, the holder can pay a late fee.
For years the Yukon government has been working to develop new mining legislation. Right now, the process is at the public consultation phase.
Almost two years ago, the independent panel behind Yukon’s Mineral Development Strategy recommended the government bring into force new mining legislation and regulations by the end of 2025. Last month, John Streicker, minister of the Department of Energy, Mines and Resources, couldn’t specify when the process would be complete.
Nonetheless, the government is coming up with ways to incorporate the panel’s 95 recommendations, which include streamlining land use planning, making royalties more equitable and building in guardrails set to protect First Nations rights.
For Cresswell, reparations are based on sharing. He said Lavigne, the claimholder near Little Atlin Lake, could work with the Carcross/Tagish First Nation and perhaps allow citizens to use the cabin, or at least build a relationship, where interests could be made, in time, to coexist.
“When you talk about reconciliation, who’s got the right to say what goes on on our land? We do,” Cresswell said.
“Our forefathers, for thousands of years, time immemorial, took care of this land for us.
“You know, Together Today For Our Children Tomorrow?” he asked, referring to the 1973 manifesto that catalyzed the land claims process in the Yukon.
“I’m one of those children.”
Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify the requirements to keep a placer claim in good standing.
This story is the first of a series focused on the use of Yukon’s backcountry as land claims are implemented, laws are reshaped and the territory’s population grows. If you have a story or perspective to share, email firstname.lastname@example.org.