The draft Yukon Mineral Development Strategy isn’t perfect. Why am I still optimistic?
Header Image: Confluence of the Yukon and Indian River, by Malkolm Boothroyd
Written by Randi Newton, Conservation Manager
The Yukon’s mining regime hasn’t kept stride with 21st century realities and expectations. True, there’s been changes and improvements, through small steps and lurches, with the occasional stumble backwards. But our mining laws remain relics from the early 1900s: mineral rights stem from pounding stakes into the ground, and our placer royalty calculations pretend that gold is worth $15 an ounce (it’s around $1800 US today). Every mine opens with a promise of social and environmental sustainability, that this time will be different from previous messes. Yet major mines like Wolverine still go bust, and it’s Yukoners who have to pay for the cleanup. There’s no reason we can’t do better.
What would it take for mining to be truly sustainable?
How can the Yukon benefit from mining, without compromising the wellbeing of people, communities, and the land?
The Mineral Development Strategy has opened a wide door for Yukoners to grapple with these questions and reimagine mining for the better. Hundreds of people participated in public engagement this past summer, speaking to the good and the bad of mining, and how to reshape it. The CPAWS team took part and maybe you even saw our recommendations for a strong strategy, ‘Seven Steps for More Responsible Mining in the Yukon’. Engagement made it clear that people want mining reform, and are tired of waiting for it.
The draft strategy came out just after Christmas. This was a pivotal first step for making mining work better in the Yukon, and I couldn’t wait to curl up on my couch and crack open the document.
My take on the draft strategy and its 79 recommendations? It’s not perfect but it’s promising. Are there missing recommendations that need to be added? Yes. Are there recommendations that could be strengthened? Yep. Are there some recommendations that should be axed? Sure.
While the strategy could use some changes, it’s still jam packed with recommendations that are long overdue. It’s founded on ideas you can’t argue with: reconciliation and honouring Yukon First Nation Final Agreements and Aboriginal rights, development that respects the wellbeing of people and the environment, and managing mining in a forward thinking way. Not all of the strategy’s recommendations fully reflect these core ideas. But this is where you can step in to improve the draft and create a final strategy the Yukon can be proud to move forward with.
Right now, the CPAWS team is working on a deep dive document with our take on all 79 recommendations. In the meantime, here’s some ideas that caught our attention:
- It’s time to rewrite Yukon’s outdated mining laws. This recommendation is a no-brainer: re-doing our antiquated mining legislation has been on the territorial to-do list since devolution. The strategy’s target to complete this by 2023 is ambitious but doable. The strategy also makes it clear that our mining laws need to catch up and align with the modern treaties and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, including the principle of free, prior, and informed consent. Unfortunately the strategy isn’t always clear on how to do this and we’ll be making some concrete suggestions for improvement.
- Creating economic sustainability for Yukoners today and future generations: A long list of recommendations aim to better capture the economic benefits that come from mining and iron out boom-bust cycles. Changes called for include updating the hardrock mining royalty system, establishing a Yukon Heritage Fund to pass on benefits to future generations, and introducing a payroll tax for fly-in, fly-out workers to stop revenue leaking outside the territory.
- Better management of mining activities. Recommendations along this line include removing the ability to stake mining claims for roads, making all mining inspection reports available online, giving mining inspectors and Yukon First Nation inspectors the enforcement tools they need to inspect and monitor mine sites, no longer allowing mines to leave behind waste for thousands of years, and improving mining security so Yukoners aren’t left with clean-up costs for abandoned mines.
- Take real action on mining reform. To make sure the territory makes progress on mining reform, the strategy recommends creating a Yukon Mineral Development Strategy Implementation Agency. This is key for holding our government to account.
Like I said, the strategy has room for improvement too. For example, it sidesteps some questions about transformative projects reshaping landscapes by calling on land use planning to be completed across the Yukon in five years. We think this timeframe is very, very optimistic, and in the meantime we need policies in place so mining activities don’t reach unsustainable levels in unplanned regions.
We’re happy that the Mineral Development Panel made an effort to address the conflict between mineral staking and land use planning, but their recommendations don’t go nearly far enough. They recommend pausing staking at the start of land use planning but only for areas with “specific high-value environmental, social and cultural attributes”. The problem is that this information isn’t available before planning starts: First Nations and Yukoners identify ecologically and culturally important areas during planning. A recommendation to pause staking across the entire region, and consider allowing it in some areas after the draft plan stage, would fix this issue.
We’ve also flagged recommendations that could go further to deal with the impacts of new mining roads, curb mining’s contribution to GHG emissions, fix embarrassingly low placer royalties, and put sufficient limits on free entry staking to respect the modern treaties and the principle of free, prior and informed consent.
Even though the strategy isn’t perfect, I’m still optimistic. We have a real opportunity to build off the draft’s strong recommendations and ideas, and shape the weaker ones for the better. Sharing your thoughts on the draft means that you’re part of something big: bringing Yukon’s mining regime into the 21st century. With a territorial election slated for later this year, this conversation is even more pivotal.
Ready to have your say on what should stay and what should go in the draft? You can take the public survey or send in a letter at http://yukonmds.com/. Want more guidance? Add your email below to be notified when our in-depth comment guide is ready, and watch for updates on our social media.
The deadline to submit your comments on the draft is February 22. The final Mineral Development Strategy is expected to be out on March 29.