The mine’s caustic legacy continues to plague Faro. / Sobhi Al-Zobaidi
Matt Hern,  February 15, 2018

The Mountain of Everything Keeps on Giving

A Yukon town looks for a reason to survive

The mine’s caustic legacy continues to plague Faro. / Sobhi Al-Zobaidi
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There is a specter haunting the landscape of extractive industry: the specter of marooned community. In the wake of Donald Trump’s election, commentators, consultants, and demagogues have rushed into once-humming company towns to pronounce a restoration: the second coming of roaring industrial prosperity. The structural logic of this vision is strikingly similar to prophetic and messianic movements across the globe that have sought cultural and spiritual revival: a miraculous return to a lost era and the vanquishing of enemies. The Trump era with its upsurge of ethno-nationalist and “populist” reactionary movements promises the revival of a vanishing industrial Golden Age against the putative threat of non-whites and non-Christians who are to be banished from the scene in a burst of exceptionalist righteousness. In an economic landscape traumatized with so much pain and loss—and one so seemingly bereft of believable economic counter-narratives—such siren songs can be fatally alluring.

To get a closer look at what happens when the future-horizon of extractive industry grinds to a halt, my friend Sobhi Al-Zobaidi and I repaired to the desolate interior of the Yukon Territory, to the once-thriving mining community of Faro. We were trying to understand what becomes of an industry town when the industry leaves town, and how a community might respond.

We were trying to understand what becomes of an industry town when the industry leaves town, and how a community might respond.

The Yukon might seem like an unlikely place to ask these questions. The Territory is about the same size as Spain but with less than thirty-six thousand people strewn across just sixteen communities. More than 75 percent of the population lives in the capital, Whitehorse, a metropolis of twenty-eight thousand. The theme-park-style tourist town of Dawson City has maybe fifteen hundred folks, with a lot more in the summer. The rest are tiny settlements, several of which have populations of less than a hundred. That gives the Yukon a population density of 0.19/sq. mile, less than half that of Mongolia or the Western Sahara.

The Yukon really is cold and lonely place, but it’s a lot more than that. In between those huge empty spaces are oases of warmth. Lots of places brag about their hospitality: the Yukon does too, and it’s for real. All across the territory are bars and restaurants, libraries, cafes, and houses where people will make you feel right at home, even if you just stumbled in road-dazed, smelling a little off, and stupidly hungry. The Yukon prides itself on a good-natured kind of rough generosity: it’s at least partly performance—the territory is also flush with sophisticated and well-traveled people—but it’s a worthy quasi-mythic cultural legacy to hang on to.

The broader mythology of the Yukon is dense and pervasive: it seeps into every conversation about the place. Mention of the Yukon evokes imagery of the Klondike Gold Rush: the half-starved, three-quarters nuts, wholeheartedly courageous fortune-seekers dragging themselves and their “ton of goods each”[*] over the Chilkoot Trail from Alaska, haunted by fever-dreams of golden creeks. Robert Service and Jack London rhapsodized the reckless bravery and astringent deprivation of the miners, as well as their penchant for rowdy drinking, gambling, and carousing. Other histories of those first gold settlers—maybe none better than Charlie Chaplain’s 1925 silent comedy The Gold Rush—speak to the unrelenting suffering: the scurvy, the violence, the maddening greed, the hunger, the bleakly frozen landscapes.

Call of the Exiled

These Homeric legends of toughness and self-reliance are the most common cultural reference points for the Yukon, and (a lot of the time anyways) they’re not fiction. But they belie an important fact of life in the region. The Yukon—now and always—relies on a ton of outside help just to get by. Canada’s provinces and territories have a confederal relationship that includes significant revenue sharing: wealthier parts of the country (“the haves”) are obligated, via federal equalization funds and a portfolio of transfer payments, to support other areas that are unable to generate sufficient revenues on their own (“the have-nots”). Yukon’s endemically boom-and-bust fortunes have meant that it is a very fulsome recipient of transfers.  For example, just in this fiscal year (2017-2018), federal contributions will make up roughly three-quarters of the Yukon’s total budget—just short of a billion dollars, or almost $26,000 in Canadian dollars per person. The whole place is on government assistance.

The Yukon—like the rest of Canada—is saturated with colonialist contradictions.

Whitehorse is full-to-bursting with government employees from a welter of departments, ministries, offices, crown corporations, and administrative branches. The government is by far the biggest employer in the Territory, directly employing more than six thousand people of an employed population of twenty-one thousand. There is some tourism activity and always talk of more—but really, aside from a trickle of badass and wannabe-badass outdoors types and a trickle of Europeans acting out their frontierist fantasies, the Yukon is too rough, too far away, has too many bugs, too few attractions, and is way, way too cold for most of the year to become anything like a frontline tourist attraction. That leaves mining as the only other real revenue generator, and the extreme volatility of the world metals market puts the Yukon in an extremely tenuous spot. The only way the mining sector there can compete is with massive government support and nurturing.[**]

The core tension between Yukon’s rugged-individualist reputation and its acute and chronic state of welfare dependence is far from the only of cognitive dissonance on display here. The whole place—like the rest of Canada—is saturated with colonialist contradictions. White people are recent arrivals: the Hudson Bay began establishing outposts in the 1840s, but it wasn’t until the late 1890s when the hordes of gold miners started rushing in that whites became a permanent presence. And even that was tenuous: in 1901 the population was over twenty-seven thousand and by 1910 the rush was done, the gold had basically been played out and the total population dwindled back down to around four thousand in 1921. It wasn’t until 1991 that the population worked its way back to 1901 levels.

Those numbers reflect the extreme volatility of resource economics everywhere, but lurking behind the booms and busts of the mining industry is the most critical factor of life in the Yukon.  Throughout its wildly fluctuating fortunes, the territory has remained Indigenous land. One constant lesson of colonial exploitation across the globe has been that whenever a new contingent of white people have rushed in for a quick score, a catastrophe for Indigenous people has predictably ensued—and in the Yukon, the story is no different.

That story is beginning to turn though. The Yukon is often spoken of, and speaks of itself, as one of the most progressive jurisdictions anywhere in terms of Indigenous governance and relationships, and there’s some evidence to support that claim. The Yukon has fourteen distinctly defined First Nations, and since 1993, eleven of them have settled land claims and become self-governing entities outside Canada’s Indian Act—that’s more than half the national total for First Nations. These nations have a government-to-government relationship with Canada: they have considerable power over their lands, resources and administration, and each First Nation has lawmaking powers that (depending on the negotiation) can displace and override territorial and federal law.

This is all true, and despite every reason to distrust Canadian intentions and fealty to these relationships, these agreements have instigated positive and tangible changes in many communities. A number of Yukon First Nations are in the midst of powerful resurgences. As you fly in over Whitehorse, the spectacular Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre jumps out of the vista. And if you are coming in on Air North (which you should, since it is quite possibly the greatest airline in the world) you’ll know that 49 percent of that airline is owned by the Vuntut Gwitchin First Nation. These are just a couple of obvious examples—look anywhere in the Yukon and you will see Indigenous economic, social, and cultural power exerting itself.

Still, the many barbaric legacies of colonial rule work to undermine such progress. Indigenous people account for about 25 percent of the Yukon’s population, but they make up more than 60 percent of the prison population. Indigenous people are far more likely to be homeless, to be victims of violence, to have their children taken away, to commit suicide, to have diabetes, and to die earlier than are their non-Indigenous counterparts. All this adds up to a significant gap in life expectancy: Indigenous men live nearly nine years less than settlers, and women six years less.

The real question haunting Faro is the obvious one: Why should this place survive?

These sharp bifurcations are even more brutal on the ground. I’m traveling with Sobhi Al-Zobaidi, a filmmaker  who grew up in the Al-Jalazone refugee camp in Palestine: he’s more than a little familiar with settler-colonial depravities. I grew up in rural British Columbia, so outright segregation is nothing new to me: I went to a high school that had two buses—one for the Indigenous kids heading to the reserve, and one for everyone else—even though they traveled the exact same route. We waited in parallel lines, rarely acknowledged one another and never spoke (except for the occasional brawl), and of course, never, ever got on each other’s buses. Sobhi has been in Canada for a long time now, but this country’s apartheid posture toward its native population still rattles him.

Dirty Old Town

In many ways the plight of Faro presents a perfect distillation of the Yukon—and Canada, and America’s—extractivist conundrums. By now, most students of our deranged postindustrial political scene know this story in its basic outlines. We’ve all seen hollowed out factory towns, or driven through rustbelt cities and resource communities that feel abandoned. In an unceasing torrent of wide-eyed coverage in national news outlets, we’ve read about places where whole generations are bereft of work—and are succumbing to opiate addiction, crime, and free-floating anomie. We’ve all been warned about automation, downsizing, and offshoring—and heard Donald Trump tell impassioned crowds in rally after rally that he is going to bring all those jobs back. The Golden Age beckons once more, provided that we can ritually expel all the dark forces who’ve perversely wrested it from our grasp.

Of course, Faro isn’t the only industrial-age ghost town facing this moment of reckoning.

Faro is a particularly stark example. Hugging the Pelly River, Faro is a town staring down extinction. Even among Yukon communities, it is a recent settlement, with fragile roots. It was founded shortly after legendary prospector and miner Al Kulan[***] heard rumors of sparkling rocks and tramped through the area in the 1950s and 60s, finding huge deposits of lead and zinc. He was especially interested in one place that the map called Mye Mountatin. Local Indigenous people called it K’asba zela’ (Ptarmigan Montain) or the “mountain of everything.” As his Indigenous guide, elder Arthur John, put it: “everything that we eat is on that mountain—moose, whistler, sheep, caribou—everything.” That mountain was also a mother lode of marketable ore.

The Faro mine was established in 1969, and through the early 80s it was booming: a classic frontier resource town, boasting the world’s largest open pit lead-zinc mine. Returns from the mine  generously supported a community of twenty-eight hundred people with a panoply of modern conveniences: a high-quality water, sewage, and heating infrastructure; great roads; a mall; a golf course; a ski-hill; and a music festival. At its peak, the mine was the largest private sector employer in the Territory and represented well over a third of the economy of the Yukon. At the peak of the boom, a massive mining truck fully loaded with ore blasted out of Faro every thirty minutes, 24/7, 365 days a year, heading for the port at Skagway, Alaska.

In 1982 though, the global metal market collapsed and the mine went into a tailspin, limping along under a shifting roster of owners until 1998, when it closed for good. The town was purely a product of the mine, and was expected to close alongside it, dropping soon after to a few dozen residents. But somehow it has persevered. Now there are 348 residents in Faro (four more than were tallied in the 2011 census), laboring to hold together the pieces of the community.

That project is some tough sledding. Indeed, the major remaining economic activity is devoted to remediating the damage that the mine visited on the surrounding environment during the boom days. The Canadian government now spends between $35 and 40 million annually to support a baroque system of dams and pumps and treatment facilities trying to contain the mess: the water runoff, tailings sludge and waste rock are all toxic and leaching heavy metals and acid endangering people, animals, land and water. As soon as the last owners went bankrupt, the mine site became the feds’ responsibility—Canadian agencies have so far spent more than $350 million on clean-up efforts. Full remediation will cost up to a billion dollars (and some estimate much more) and there’s no stable timeline for that work to begin: the federal government is supposed to table a plan next year and the soonest anyone expects real cleanup to start is 2023 at the very earliest. And that remediation plan will never fully clean the toxicity up. Locals call it the ‘thousand-year project’ and the engineers we spoke with acknowledge that unless new technologies arrive, significant on-going water treatment will be required “forever”.

When Faro’s soft-spoken and thoughtful Chief Administrative Officer Ian Dunlop drove us up to see the mine, we were prepared for the well-worn image of economic decline: the abandoned, still-smoldering site. But as it turned out, we weren’t anywhere near prepared enough. We’d read about the massive 9.6 square mile site, the 77 million tons of tailings, the 350 million tons of rubble, the 160,000 acres of poisoned soil and groundwater, the three giant abandoned pits that keep filling up with contaminated water—but those are just numbers.  It’s the sheer visceral scope of the thing that’s so startling. The gorgeous, vast lake of a tailings pond is on one side of us as we drive in. On the other side, rearing up above us is a majestic escarpment—running parallel to the road for kilometers—that is actually one immense slag heap. The water, the waste rock, the sludge—it’s all super-sized.

The Rose Creek tailings area and nearby “ponds” are actually an almost half-mile wide and 2.5-mile long toxic dump  that looks like an idyllic northern lake filling the valley and disappearing off into the snow-covered distance. It takes a moment to shake this first impression and realize that this serene-looking body of water is actually one of Canada’s most egregious ongoing environmental calamities. Kick away at the thin ice just covering the pond, and you’ll find a creepy orange and purple brew underneath, one that reportedly bubbles and shimmies in the summer heat.

And all of this is on the traditional territory of the Kaska Dena First Nation and just upstream from the Selkirk First Nation.  When that mine went in and the town of Faro popped up, it was not unoccupied territory—anything but, in fact. People had been traveling, trapping, fishing, hunting and camping all over that mountain forever. Indeed, this is generally the rule for  bio-catastrophes across the globe: they overwhelmingly take place on Indigenous land. When researchers with the World Wildlife Fund listed the top two hundred areas with the most threatened biodiversity across the globe, they found that 95 percent are on Indigenous territories.

A River Runs Through It

The Dene community of Ross River is just 43 miles down the road from Faro (in the Yukon that makes them next door neighbors—there are no other settlements anywhere close in any direction).  Some folks got rich digging rocks out of that mountain, but they sure weren’t the people of the Kaska Nation—even though a group of Kaska had initially guided Kulan and helped to establish the original mine site. Ross River has yet to come to a self-government agreement—and very possibly never will – and is now desperately mired in poverty: a town of 293 people trying to figure out how to move forward amid the wreckage of its former economic model. If you do a basic Google search for Ross River, you’ll first see a series of glum reports about the mine and how Ross is trying to get in on the remediation efforts. Scrolling on, you’ll soon encounter a true horror story: a pack of feral dogs killing and eating a twenty-two-year man right in the middle of the community a few years ago. You’ll read about the lack of sufficient response from any level of government—and that, thanks to the elemental breakdowns in services, dogs are still an everyday danger in town. Dogs are a real problem in communities across the Yukon—nowhere moreso than Ross, Start a casual conversation with anyone there, and the threat of feral dogs comes up unprompted. As the young man’s uncle told a reporter soon after: “If Shane was a white person from a good community and a good family, you know, things would have been done right away.”

The nostalgia for heroic, world-conquering enterprise is as thick in Faro as it is in Flint, or Youngstown, or Scranton.

When you make the turn to Ross, the road turns from pavement to dirt. It’s a metaphor so crude you swear it can’t be true, marking a reversal of basic infrastructure support that feels all too apt a summation of the divergent fates of the two communities.  Faro and Ross are two little towns bound to the legacy of the mine: they should be in this together, but nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, as soon as the mine was built, Ross River was essentially dealt out of the boom and its proceeds. The Ross River Dena Council rightly argues that it was marginalized and impoverished for decades by the mine—and now may miss any opportunity to benefit from its remediation. And that’s where this conversation keeps getting stuck: the disaster and damage of the Faro Mine is clear and obvious. But what next? What is going to change?

In Faro, these are existential questions. The Ross River Dene have always been there: for their healing to begin, they need their land back and the colonial waters to recede. But Faro presents a fundamentally different quandary: Why should it be here at all? The town is full of resources: a rink, a community center, a pool, a gym, bushels of available housing. The residents are proud and protective of their town: the old-timers harbor memories of when it was lively and prosperous. Wandering around, it’s not hard to imagine what the town looked like when it was hopping.

But it’s also a little unnerving: the mall is shuttered, way more than half the remaining houses are empty and boarded up, the golf course quiet. The town could really use a café, or mechanic, or hairdresser, or most anything. Faro’s civic leaders are trying whatever they can think of to regenerate the place: Maybe it could be reimagined as a retirement community? An artist enclave? How about eco-tourism—once all the toxic mines are cleared out? There are prodigious hunting and fishing spots all around. There is an annual Sandhill Crane and Dall Sheep Viewing Festival that draws some crowds. And there is a very affordable local housing market that they are aggressively (and with some limited success) recruiting people to consider. But the real questions haunting Faro are the obvious ones: Why should this place survive? Why should settlers be here? What is its reason to be?

Of course, Faro isn’t the only industrial-age ghost town facing this moment of reckoning: find a way to attract some people, money and resources—or die. In the midst of globalized competition for everything, a world-historic rush to cities, and volatile swings in neoliberal economic flows, this precarity is felt acutely by little places like Faro, big places like Detroit, factory towns across the Rustbelt, rural and farming towns everywhere. The nostalgia for heroic, world-conquering enterprise is as thick in Faro as it is in Flint, or Youngstown, or Scranton.

As we drove back from the tailings pond we heard an incantatory dream for Faro taking shape. The remediation money and jobs will keep the town afloat for the next twenty years or so as the community slowly regroups and rebounds. Then, once the original mine is all tidied up, capital can be turned loose once more in quest of more mountains and more deposits—some perhaps even bigger than the original ones. We heard the story of a geologist who flew over the region recently and claims that the area is teeming with other, potentially massive mine sites just waiting to be developed. The geologist enthused: “For a miner, being out here is like being a kid in a candy store.”[****] 

Of course it is—just as in the “forgotten” periphery of the Rust Belt and Appalachia where Trump’s American base is enraptured with the conviction that the manufacturing jobs stripped out of their communities will thaumaturgically return, of course the residents of Faro want the good old days to come back—to make the Yukon great again. The mountain of everything provided all Faro needed, and maybe it can, once all the damage and detritus is cleared, yet summon forth one more Golden Age.

 

Many thanks to Gina Nagano, Karen Furlong, Elaine Alexie, Am Johal, Preeti Dhaliwal, Selena Couture, Dan Bushnell, Sarah Gallagher, Damien Burns, Jordan Stackhouse, Ian Dunlop, Margaret Donnelly, the Whitehorse EMR library, Josh Barichello, and my whole 2017 Comparative Development class for their research, support, counsel, and friendship.

 

[*] According to the National Parks Service, “To prevent mass starvation in the remote and inaccessible Yukon Territory, the Canadian government required every stampeder bring a year’s supply of goods before crossing the border. . . . [Each person needed] three pounds of food per day for a whole year. Food alone would weigh in at a minimum of 1,095 pounds (~497 kg) or just over half a ton. But for a prospector, adding necessary clothes and equipment to the food could easily double the total load, and thus came to be known as a ‘ton of goods.’”

[**] And really, even with all the help, the Yukon’s mining sector isn’t bearing up well under all that competition. There is an elaborate promotional and PR infrastructure cheerleading for mining in the territory, but right now there is only a single mine producing—the beleaguered Minto copper mine—that is constantly threatening to shut down, lay off employees, cut back on ops etc. There are a bunch of little placer mines scraping away at stream beds but they are small-scale, often individual affairs. There are currently (as always) some major exploration projects underway, accompanied (as always) with grandiose industry claims of the massive projects just—just!—on the horizon.

[***] Kulan, in classic Yukon style, was shot in the Ross River Hotel bar in 1977. He was drinking with associates when a man named John Rolls walked in. Kulan and Rolls had founded the hotel some years previous, but their partnership had collapsed into a long-standing beef. Rolls casually strolled through the crowded saloon, pointed a 357 Magnum at Kulan’s head and shot. Rolls then walked up to the bar, set the pistol down, and told the barmaid: “There. Now call the RCMP.” He quietly lit a cigarette and finished the drink he bought earlier, looking around as everyone else slid out: “He’s dead. He deserved it.”

[****]  Correction: This article has been revised to clarify the vague attribution of a quote spoken by a geologist visiting Faro, “For a miner, being out here is like being a kid in a candy store.”

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