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Selkirk learning the ropes at Minto project


Last updated 2/25/2007 at Noon

Vancouver-based Sherwood Copper is rapidly developing the Minto copper-gold project, the first new hard rock mine in the Yukon. Minto is on land belonging to the Selkirk First Nation, which numbers about 600 people, many of whom live in the nearby community of Pelly Crossing. Sherwood has worked hard to establish good relations with the Selkirk, the company's president and CEO, Stephen Quin, said at Roundup.

"You really have to be dealing with Selkirk right from the beginning on everything you do," Quin said. The Selkirk wanted to ensure that Sherwood's subsidiary, Minto Exploration, provided meaningful access to jobs and contracts, addressed the environmental and social risks of the project, and kept clear lines of communication open with them, he added.

"Minto Exploration's interest obviously is in ensuring that there is local support," Quin said. "With our very rapid development schedule, obviously we don't want things that are going to cause delays, that are going to impact that schedule, because that's very, very costly. We want to press the button to go; we want to get to the end of the race as fast as possible. We obviously want commercial certainty, we want to know what is the deal, when are the benefits going to come through. We don't want to continue with renegotiation or uncertainty coming through that process."

Hiring, training, apprenticeship opportunities key

The key components of a cooperation agreement signed by Minto Exploration and the Selkirk are priority on hiring, training, apprenticeship opportunities for the Selkirk, access to contract opportunities and a direct payment of 0.5 percent net smelter return royalty on all production. For their part, the Selkirk committed to cooperate on project licensing, the environmental assessment process, provision of access to the site and assistance with labor recruitment as well as communication and consultation.

"The Selkirk is generally supportive of the project, and essentially that's driven by, this is the only meaningful business opportunity available to the local community in the near term," Quin said. "There are obviously quite a few challenges to deal with and there are legacy issues in both the Yukon and locally; the Faro mine was abandoned with very substantial environmental ongoing liabilities. Selkirk First Nation was one of the affected communities or groups, so they obviously have a considerable amount of exposure to the issues related to abandoned mines that haven't been properly bonded," he added.

Another problem was that construction first began at Minto in the mid-1990s, but shut down at an early stage when metals prices collapsed. Expectations had been built up and then shattered, and that made it more of a challenge for Minto Exploration to re-establish trust with the Selkirk, according to Quin. Since that time there has been no industrial development in the area, so there are few people with the skills to work in construction or mining, he said. Anyone who does have the skills went to work elsewhere and has to be enticed back.

Area doesn't have much industrial development

"Because of the lack of industrial development there's just essentially limited exposure to a private sector type of economy, and obviously camp life - this will be a drive-in, drive-out operation with our standard rotation, it'll be two weeks in, two weeks out - and that's not a common thing a lot of First Nations people have experienced in that area, so it requires a very dramatic cultural shift in thinking," Quin said. Nevertheless, there are now about 20 Selkirk working at Minto, including three who got their jobs back after failing drug and alcohol tests and going through rehabilitation.

Minto Exploration is accelerating the provision of educational trust funds for the Selkirk that it had promised to implement when production commenced: the company decided there was no reason to wait until then. Pelly Crossing is only 25 miles from the Minto site, so if more employees can come from there, then it will be much cheaper than driving or flying them in from a long distance, Quin noted. The mine can be a springboard for capacity-building for other mining projects and other industries in the Yukon, he added.

"We've had a number of successes, we do have quite a productive relationship in a number of areas," Quin said. "We've seen demonstrable success, support from Selkirk on permitting, which has shortened our permitting process. Remember they're the landowner, if they're going to the Yukon government and saying we support this, we've reviewed the technical information ... and we support this, then it's significantly reduced our process, for example to renew our Type A water license." A permit to expand the mill at Minto was also issued within three months, after the Selkirk provided written support to the regulators.

"Responsible companies really have to earn their social license to operate in an area," Quin said. "You've got to be open, fair, cooperative and reasonable. ... Don't go in with unrealistic expectations," he concluded.


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