In a town built for thousands, Faro’s 400 souls dream big
Joel Krahn/Yukon News
Kids once played in the streets and courtyards here.
The newspaper on the kitchen table of the townhome is from 1998, around the time when the Faro Mine shut down for good.
Whoever lived here didn’t bother to pack up their family’s belongings before they left. Clothes still hang in the closets. An unopened box of Corn Flakes still sits on the kitchen table. The design on the label might be considered “retro-chic” by now.
Faro was once a boom town. Most of the people are long gone, but the streets and houses remain.
“I think that’s one of the interesting things about the way mining has changed,” said Ian Dunlop, the town’s chief administrative officer. “Now all mining is camps. Typically they’ll go in for two weeks and out for two weeks. Whereas here they wanted to encourage families to come.”
The Faro Mine opened in 1969 and the Cyprus Anvil Mining Corporation became the largest private sector employer in the Yukon.
At one point the mine represented a third of the Yukon’s entire economy, and by the mid 1970s it was the largest lead/zinc mine in Canada.
“It was crazy here. I was, as a staff member, given access to one housing unit and it was that or nothing,” said Mayor Jack Bowers, who came to work for the corporation in 1980.
Since the mine shut down, the number of Faroites has shrunk from a few thousand to a low of 97 during a temporary shutdown in 1985. The population now sits at about 400.
They’re a mix of people who have been here since the beginning and those who moved in after the mining boom and are working to make the town run.
Infrastructure built for thousands is now home to a fraction of that.
The Del Van Gorder School was designed to accommodate about 400 students. Right now it has about 50.
The town has three fire trucks. That’s based on the number of buildings it has, not the number of people.
The town’s public works department has a staff of six to keep everything running. In the summer that will more than double.
“That’s actually a really big burden for us to maintain, because we have enough infrastructure that’s capable of (supporting) 3,000 people and we have to maintain that on our tax base with the small, dedicated staff that we have,” Dunlop said.
It wouldn’t be possible without support from the territorial and federal government, he said.
No one is suggesting Faro could get back to a population of 3,000, but a few hundred more people would be helpful, Bowers said.
“We’re on the threshold of that 400 where, if our numbers were to shrink significantly, we may not be be able to sustain K-12 (classes). The grocery store, the other services that are important to any community, there’s going to be less opportunity for them to make it financially.”
A population of 500 or 600 people would mean a comfort level where “we would be able to sustain the school and services at a level that we now enjoy.”
That’s where the abandoned buildings come in.
“We’re in a unique situation in the Yukon. We’re probably the only community that has surplus housing that could be made available,” the mayor said.
Thirty-seven buildings, with a total of 170 living units, sit mostly abandoned, according to a report by the town.
The owner of those buildings, the now-defunct Faro Real Estate Limited, managed rent for all of the town’s miners and took care of the mortgages on the buildings.
The company owes about $3 million in back taxes. Liens were first placed on the buildings in 2003 but Bowers’ administration is the first one to tackle the paperwork.
As of last month the town has title on 17 of the properties. Work on taking over the rest is in progress.
Bowers believes the town would likely be liable for the abandoned homes whether it owned them or not, so council decided to take the leap.
“We want to be masters of our own destiny.”
What that destiny will look like hasn’t been decided yet. Some homes could be sold, roughly half will need to be torn down.
A community development team including representatives from various levels of government will come up with options for what to do next. A plan should be ready sometime in the new year.
The mine may be shut down, but Faro’s leaders hope it can still help the town grow.
The federal government took over the mine when the owner went bankrupt in 2009 and the mine has become one of Canada’s largest remediation projects.
Getting a reclamation plan through the various permitting processes is the responsibility of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada.
The goal is to initiate the environmental assessment process in 2018 and then apply for a water licence, according to spokesperson Erin Macpherson.
“We expect the EA process will take two years, followed by another two years for a water licence. With this plan, remediation would start in 2023 or 2024,” she said.
It’s likely the project will require more than 100 full time staff for remediation.
A lot of the reclamation work will likely still involve camps, the mayor said. But some people might want to stay.
“I worked in the mining industry where it was a fly-in, fly out operation,” he said. “It’s not ideal. So for those employees that would like to bring their families here and live in the community, we want to give them that as an option. But first we have to have housing for them.”
The mayor is confident the area will see more mining eventually.
“I’m convinced that it may not be anything we see in the near future, but in the long term I think we’ll see mining activity again.”
Those who call Faro home already have grown comfortable with their unique circumstances.
The Discovery Store was bigger during the boom but it still offers just about anything you could want.
The aisles are stocked with everything from hair dye to bullets.
Eileen Owen, who helps run the place, said Wednesday, Thursday and Friday are her busiest days.
The weekly food truck comes on Wednesday. There are times, particularly during the summer, when she’s out of almost all the perishables by Friday.
The store is viable as it is, she said. Hardware is a big draw for local contractors and she’s always willing to make bulk food orders if the community is looking for something specific. And residents generally shop locally for groceries.
That doesn’t mean she’s opposed to a bigger population — it would just mean buying more coolers.
Having empty serviced lots in town would give people a chance to build a home of their own in town, she said.
“Because of course these are company houses. So they’re brought in, slapped together, and away you go.”
As for why the population stays so small, Owen said it comes down to finding work.
“If you don’t work for the town, the mine, or the government, what do you do? It would be nice if there were more jobs here but I don’t even know how you could create them to make them worthwhile in a place this size.”
The town’s local hotels and short-term rentals are doing well.
Cyndy and Brian Bekk moved to Faro 13 years ago and started Far-O-Way Guest House five years ago.
“We ended up going to the computer, putting in ‘Yukon real estate under $60,000’ and poof, the whole town of Faro came up.”
Brian, a contractor, renovated both of the homes they’ve lived in.
“We could never have done that anywhere else except in a town that had fallen on hard times.”
Now they’re working on a second guesthouse. Their clients are usually Yukon government employees passing through.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had a month where we don’t have somebody in these units. It’s been very, very busy,” she said.
Brian said they would “absolutely” be interested in buying more buildings if they were available.
“Did you say absolutely? I guess we’re going to own more houses,” Cyndy said.
“Well, I don’t know if we will or not,” Brian said, correcting himself, “but it’s a fantastic opportunity for someone.”
Brian said the public perception of the mine outside of town might not help Faro grow.
“People have to stop saying that it’s a toxic wasteland, because it’s not. We’d all either be dead or have two heads by now if it was a toxic wasteland,” he said.
“It’s not. It’s a grand and glorious place.”