Editor’s Note: This is the third post in the Yukon Environmental History series organized around the 125th anniversary of the creation of the Yukon Territory. You can read other posts on this series here.
The narrative of Yukon as a ‘mining place’ is a trope that has been written about many times before. I have resisted putting this story, and my research more broadly, into that sluice box and telling just another Yukon mining story.1 And yet, Yukon as a settler/extractive colonial jurisdiction – with boundaries and legislations drawn up by the settler-state – is a mining place. But it’s not just a mining place.
Historic Klondike imagery of plucky prospectors, canny businessmen, gambling, can-can dancers, and heady boom-town energy permeate contemporary Yukon settler identity, the local tourism industry, and continued placer and quartz mining operations – with some locals going as far as to say that placer mining is the “family-farm of the Yukon.”2 It is how these mining histories are told – and what stories aren’t told – that perpetuates and projects the inevitability of extraction into the future of Yukon, cementing the image of Yukoners as miners, displayed so proudly on our license plates and festivals.3
In a place so entrenched in mining, there are few popularized stories of resistance to extraction. These somewhat hidden stories outline how the fight for Indigenous rights and sovereignty was (and is) tied up in radical changes in environmental management4 and planning for reclamation. In these stories, pushes for reclamation are directly connected to land and water rights. To flip the Yukon mining story on its head, I trace the histories of how Land is ‘made extractable’ and outline resistance to that extraction, using the Faro Mine, on Ross River Kaska Dena Land, as an example.5
The Yukon as an Extractable Territory
Yukon, as a territory defined by settler-state imposed legal structures, was created by and for extraction. During the Klondike Gold Rush (beginning in 1896), as miners raced to stake gold claims along the Yukon’s many waterways, the Canadian government scrambled to claim royalties and settler sovereignty. Coincidentally, the Yukon Territory was created in 1898, with mining legislation quickly installed.6 Premised on a ‘free-entry’ claim staking system, mining legislation in Yukon privileged the theft of Land for mineral development over all other land relationships.7 Throughout the 20th century, mining operations in Yukon were heavily supported and funded by the Canadian Government.
Almost immediately after the Klondike Gold Rush, Yukon First Nations began making demands for negotiation of land use, mineral rights, and compensation for the environmental and community harm connected to extraction.8 These demands were emboldened in the 1950s and 60s as settler-state investment in mining infrastructure ramped up, resulting in the boom of resource roads and further illegal development of Yukon First Nations Lands. Despite Yukon First Nations’ demands for negotiations, the Canadian government worried that signing a treaty would limit access to mineral resources, and refused to negotiate until the mid 1970s, when the Calder decision opened the door for litigation based on Aboriginal title.
Infrastructures of Theft: The Roots of Reclamation
Faro Mine, which was the centre of the Yukon economy throughout the second half of the 20th century, is couched in this extractive colonial history. The Faro Mine story illuminates the structures used to steal Kaska Land and Water and how these systems persist, forming the roots of reclamation today.
Free entry staking opened the door for the illegal development of mines on Kaska Lands. Faro was staked on unceded Kaska Territory in the Tsē Zul region in 1954. Next, in 1969 mine permits were signed by the federal government in full awareness of the unceded nature of Kaska Territory. Kaska Land was also seized for the construction of the town of Faro and the roads that serviced the mine.9
In the face of this Land theft, and despite the perceived lack of ‘reclamation attitudes’ in 20th century mining, Ross River Dena Council and the Yukon Conservation Society are recorded in public hearings as early as the 1970s – asking for reclamation objectives and financial securities. Ross River Dena Council also demanded Land rights and compensation for stolen Land, in addition to a guarantee, via reclamation, that they would someday reclaim their rights to and relationship with Tsē Zul:
Government has not compensated Ross River Indian people for alienation of their traditional lands; and have not consulted respecting the location of the mine, the townsite, and the tailings ponds, have not adequately monitored and prevented the contamination of Rose Creek […] for all the positive benefits that Cyprus Anvil provides to the Yukon economy, the evidence is very clear, little benefit, if any, has trickled down to the Indian people, and more importantly, this mega-project has reduced our capacity for self-employment in subsistence renewable resource harvesting.10
These initial moments of theft, and resistance to theft, are particularly salient, and yet overlooked, in contemporary mining and reclamation narratives. Today, reclamation discussions on-the-ground rely heavily on the notion of reversal.11 And yet, reversal is strategically spotty. Consultants attempt to define baselines for vegetation, landforms, and animal habitat while obscuring not only Kaska relationality with land, but also historic and ongoing theft and resistance. Whereas theft and resistance imply accountability, baselines do not, erasing the socio-ecological histories of Tsē Zul.
Faro Mine received their first approved water license in 1974, which required the company to submit a completed reclamation plan. Individuals participating in public hearings, including Ross River Dena Council leadership, expressed deep concern about long-term responsibility and pushed state regulators to include tangible objectives for reclamation and financial securities. Despite steps forward in reclamation planning, the thousands of pages documenting public discussion about reclamation expectations obscured ongoing Water theft as thousands of gallons of Kaska Water were actively being contaminated – including several major tailings spills through the 1970s and 80s.
Water theft was legitimated via reclamation promises. Companies continually played Russian roulette with the Yukon Water Board, Ross River Dena Council, and Yukoners – promising reclamation to obtain water permits then putting off remedial action and threatening closure and loss of jobs. In addition, while Yukon Water Board signed away water rights, Yukon First Nations were negotiating rights at the land claim negotiation table. Ross River Dena Council asked for permits at Faro to be put on hold until the nature of those rights were solidified. Their requests were continually denied:
…the only opposition to the amendment was voiced by the Ross River Indian Band. This opposition was directed, not so much at the specific request for increase in water use, but more broadly at the granting of regulatory approvals by government bodies prior to formal consultation of the Band by the proponent and/or the resolution of aboriginal claims. The Board is of the opinion that it is not in a position to suspend its licensing activities under the Northern Inland Waters Act, while resolution of the issue of aboriginal claims and the Band’s role in resource management – an issue much broader than the Board’s mandate under the Act – is negotiated.12
This strategic detachment allowed both the company and the government to sidestep land claim implications in operations at Faro, using colonial mining and environmental legislation to perpetuate and legitimate the continued development of Lands and Waters that had already been acknowledged as unceded.
Theft via Reclamation
Faro closed in 1998. Over twenty years later, Faro is still in the process of reclamation planning. The reclamation plan at Faro remains focused on covering waste rock and tailings and re-routing and treating water into perpetuity. At a high level, this approach isn’t much different from the reclamation plans outlined in the 1980s. In addition, while Faro stagnates in reclamation planning, the non-Indigenous consulting companies that profited off the construction, reclamation planning, and environmental monitoring of the Faro Mine during operations (Parsons, SRK, and Golder) continue to profit off current contracts at Faro – begging the question, is this reclamation, or maintenance of theft?
As can be seen in this recent cartoon published in Yukon News13, in the past 20 years multiple major mines have been abandoned, none of which have moved into full reclamation. Within the Yukon (and Canada more broadly), this failure to reclaim is usually blamed on historical lack of information, inadequate technology, or deficient regulatory requirements. In Yukon, industry and government regulators rely on refrains of ignorance: ‘Things were just different back then, we have better rules and tech now.’ Policy makers and industry alike evade the specific extractive histories that have led to the need for reclamation, while touting their improved (and unproven) strategies for future reclamation.
Stories of theft and resistance are rarely included in reclamation dialogue, or in Yukon mining histories more broadly. The histories that truly matter are not always biological baselines, as defined by vegetative cover or wildlife habitat. It is pre-mining relationships with Land, which includes vegetation and wildlife, and the settler colonial histories that disrupted these relationships, that need to take centre.
The difference between what companies and states promise for reclamation outcomes and what is delivered is a matter of social and environmental justice. Yaqui scholar Rebecca Tsosie calls attention to an ‘ethic of reclamation’, that asks fundamentally different questions of reclamation projects than technical environmental regulations. An ‘ethics of reclamation’ provides alternative frameworks of justice that link gendered violence, intergenerational trauma, and environmental destruction to settler colonialism and dispossession through the contamination of Land.14 Attempting a ‘more ethical’ reclamation process is not a matter of more consultation – it is a discussion about relationships with Land, and it is a mechanism to unsettle the structures that deem some places and bodies ‘extractable’ and ‘wasteable.’
125 years after the creation of Yukon and the associated mining legislation that formed the bedrock of the settler-colonial territory, the Yukon Government, in partnership with Yukon First Nations, is moving through the hoops of re-writing mineral legislation. Such a moment of change presents an optimal opportunity to confront these histories and resist forms of reclamation that maintain theft.
 As a mining jurisdiction, there is a lot of research and popular writing about mining in the Yukon. Much of this work valorizes and celebrates the few years of the Klondike Gold Rush. A smaller subset of work details the history of industry scale quartz development in the territory throughout the 20th century (Coates and Morrison (2005), Land of the Midnight Sun: A History of the Yukon, McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal and Kingston.). However, much of this work continues the Klondike tradition, painting a picture of frontier lifestyles in the mid 1990s and the adventures of witty geological engineers (Jane Gaffin (1980), Cashing In, DWFriesen & Sons Ltd., Ottawa, Ontario; Aaro Aho (2006), Hills of Silver: The Yukon’s Mighty Keno Hill, Lost Moose Books, Maderia Park, BC. ). Most recently, some critical work has dug into the histories, structures, and policies shaping the power, wealth, and environmental change implicit in Yukon mining (Heather Green (2018), The Trondëk Hwëch’in and the Great Upheaval: Mining, Colonialism, and Environmental Change in the Klondike, 1890-1940. PhD Dissertation, University of Alberta: History and Classics; Jen Jones (2020), Confronting Settler Colonialism when Assessing the Impact of Mining on Indigenous Peoples’ Health and Well-Being.” PhD Dissertation, University of Guelph: Geography). Underling this research is the extensive work that Yukon First Nations have committed to producing their own strategies for mining on their territories and documenting their own histories and experiences of mining (see for example, First Nation of Na’Cho Nyak Dun, Guiding Principles Towards Best Practices Codes for Mineral Interests with First Nation of Na-Cho Nyak Dun Traditional Territory, 2008; Teslin Tlingit Council, Teslin Tlingit Council Mining Policy (2008); Kwalin Dun First Nations Lands and Resources Act; Kluane First Nation Lands and Natural Resources Act and “Proponents Engagement Guide” (2012)).
 Jimmy Thompson, “Gold seekers are flooding into the Yukon and wreaking havoc on its rivers,” The Narwhal, September 11, 2018. https://thenarwhal.ca/gold-seekers-flooding-yukon-wreaking-havoc-rivers/
 Lori Fox, “It’s about time Yukon Renedezvous dropped the colonialist ‘Sourdough’,” CBC North, Feb 2, 2021: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/sourdough-rendezvous-name-opinion-lori-fox-1.5896834
 For examples, the Yukon First Nations push for land claims agreements, which included co-management of lands and resources. See Together Today for our Children Tomorrow, the Umbrella Final Agreement and the resulting final land claims and self-government agreements.
 Here, I use the term Land, with a capital ‘L’, following Max Liboiron’s distinction between land (a general term that refers to landscapes as fixed geographical space, i.e. dirt, rocks, waterways) and Land (a proper name “indicating a primary relationship… Land extends beyond a material fixed space.” Liboiron, Max (2021), Pollution is Colonialism. Duke University Press: Durham, p. 6, in footnotes.
 The Klondike Gold Rush entrenched a mining system via the Dominion Lands Act and the Yukon Act, with the associated Placer Mining Act and Quartz Mining Act.
 Dawn Hoogeveen (2015), “Sub-surface property, free-entry mineral staking and settler colonialism in Canada,” Antipode 47(1): 121-138.
 The Council for Yukon Indians (January 1973), “Together Today for Our Children Tomorrow: A Statement of Grievances and an Approach to Settlement by the Yukon Indian People.” Whitehorse, Yukon Territory.
 Ross River Dena Council V. Canada (Attorney General), 2017, YKSC 58 and 59.
 Yukon Territorial Water Board, “Public Hearing on Application by Cyprus Anvil Mining Corp to Amend License Y2L3-2226 1982”, March 3-4, 1982, p. 405
 Isbister, Krystal and Beckett, Caitlynn, “Quartz mine reclamation in the Yukon – the past is also the present,” Yukon News, May 21, 2023: https://www.yukon-news.com/letters-opinionsletters/letter-quartz-mine-reclamation-in-the-yukon-the-past-is-also-the-present/
 Yukon Territory Water Board, Reasons for Decision: In the Matter of Application for Amendment of License No. Y—IN85-05AL by Curragh Resources, July 17, 1986.
 Stephanie Waddel, “The Fickle Finger of Mining Award,” Yukon News, July 5, 2023.
 Max Liboiron’s, Pollution is Colonialism (referenced above) also makes direct connections between the theft of Land and colonial-capitalist systems of pollution, which resonates in the context of mining and mine waste in Northern Canada.
Feature Image: The Town of Faro after the June 13, 1969 fire burnt down much of the newly constructed town. The Town of Faro was built on unceded Ross River Kaska territory, near the Kaska community and fish camp at Blind Creek. (Yukon Archives, Ford Colyer collection ACC 2007/9, PHO 598, 26)
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