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110-Year Rush

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Issue: 56 Section: Environment Geography: North Yukon Territory Topics: Mining, Indigenous, environment

December 12, 2008

110-Year Rush

Songs moved to survive the goldrush are returned to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in

by Tory Russell

Chief Isaac of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in nation on the porch of his home at Moosehide, n.d. Photo: Yukon Archives, Anglican Church, Diocese of Yukon fonds, 89/42 # 746.

WHITEHORSE, YUKON–When 10,000 men showed up in Dawson City, Yukon, 110 years ago they were chasing gold in Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in territory. Prospectors and settlers arrived in hoards, almost overnight.

Chief Isaac of the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in nation saw the influx of settlers as a threat to preserving the way of his people. He sent their precious legacy – the community's stories and songs – to a safe place: extended networks of family in the interior of Alaska

Ever since, newcomers have come in waves, seeking the earth's resources and building roads. In the process, First Nations have been denied access to some of their traditional hunting and gathering areas and other areas have become degraded and contaminated.

Today, Western Copper is aiming to open a mine near Carmacks. The company plans to use a form of sulphuric acid heap leach technology in the Yukon River watershed, which was approved by the Yukon Environmental and Socio-economic Assessment Board (YESAB). Heap leaching involves piling the crushed ore and irrigating it with sulpheric acid in order to dissolve the copper from the ore. The heap leach pile in this example will be as high as a thirty-story building and cover 31.5 hectares on the side of a mountain nine kilometres from the Yukon River.

“The YESAB screening report acknowledges that there is no example of this kind of heap being successfully detoxified anywhere in the world,” says Yukon Conservation Society Executive Director Karen Baltgailis. “Yet, YESAB is recommending that the project be allowed to proceed, using the first cell of the heap as a ‘field trial.’”

While an industrial scale field trial could be useful to determine whether or not the project is environmentally responsible, the so-called ‘field trial’ is occurring as the mine goes into full commercial operation. Thus, say critics, it is more accurate to call the entire mine experimental.

“Do we want to experiment with the Yukon River like this? How is this going to work? We can’t stop them from continuing if their experiment goes wrong,” says Eddie Skookum, Chief of the local Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation.

But the Little Salmon Carmacks First Nation does not have the right to refuse the mine, according to provincial and national law.

Experts consulted by the First Nation include Dr. Lionel J.J. Catalan, Canada Research Chair in Industrial Waste Management and Site Remediation, and Dr. Kendra Zamzow, Aqueous Geochemist at Center for Science in Public Participation in Anchorage, Alaska. Both expressed doubt that complete leaching could ever be achieved given the size and complexity of the heap. This means that decontamination is not certain and it is likely a significant amount of copper will remain in the heap after the mine is closed.

This copper, highly toxic to salmon, may eventually find its way into the watershed. To date, no one has been able to challenge the findings of these experts.

“These chemicals will poison the salmon," says Chief Skookum. "It’s our duty to other First Nations to protect the river… We still have a big mess at the Mt. Nansen mine site and we don’t need to hear any more apologies from bureaucrats about a new disaster on our land.”

To thrive in the Yukon for millennia, First Nations have had to consider the long term consequences of their decisions. In 1898, at the height of the Gold Rush, Chief Isaac’s deliberate protection of Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in stories, songs and dances is an example of foresight.

After 100 years of safeguarding, Alaskan elders have been returning the oral traditions home to the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in.

Chief Skookum and others concerned by Western Copper's mine are worried that the "modern" Yukon lacks the vision and skill to protect and preserve the traditional and ecological value of the Yukon River.

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