Yukon gov says help available for Whitehorse landslides, but makes no firm commitment

A portion of the Robert Service Way in Whitehorse, pictured here on April 8, 2023, is shut down due to a landslide. (City of Whitehorse )

Whitehorse says it needs tens of millions of dollars to address landslides permanently

As landslides and road closures become the first signs of spring in Whitehorse, the city and Yukon’s opposition parties are turning to the territorial government.

Robert Service Way has been closed since Saturday after a landslide from the adjacent clay cliffs blocked part of the road just south of downtown Whitehorse. Last spring, larger landslides closed the road for close to seven weeks.

There’s still no timeline to reopen this year as crews assess the escarpment’s stability.

The city built a retaining wall at the base of the cliffs next to the road, but it can’t prevent landslides completely. This weekend’s landslide, for instance, missed the wall completely.

Whitehorse Mayor Laura Cabott told reporters Tuesday that landslides are becoming more regular as the climate warms, and the city will need to find a long-term solution to keep Robert Service Way from closing each spring. She said it’s too early to tell what’s needed, but it’s going to be costly.

“Going forward, it is a very hefty price tag, which the city cannot take on on its own,” she said. “We’re looking at tens of millions of dollars.”

That comment sparked a debate in the territorial legislature Tuesday, with Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon asking what the territory would contribute to such a project.

“Simply cleaning up the clay and carrying on isn’t going to work,” he told reporters after Question Period. “We’re looking for some assurance from the government that there’s conversations going on about a long-term solution.”

Dixon asked whether the territory would dip into a $50-million contingency fund included in this year’s budget.

Yukon Party Leader Currie Dixon, pictured here in fall, wants to know how the territorial government will help Whitehorse with landslides long term. (Julien Gignac/CBC)

In his budget address in March, Finance Minister Sandy Silver announced the fund for “emerging priorities, including wildfires and flooding.”

Community Services Minister Richard Mostyn said the contingency fund is reserved for emergency responses, not infrastructure projects. As such, he said, none of it would go toward a project to prevent landslides.

Mostyn told the legislature he spoke with Cabott first thing Saturday morning.

“They said they didn’t need anything at this time, but we are working with the City of Whitehorse on an ongoing basis,” he said. “We’ll certainly help out as this issue continues to evolve.”

The territory gave $2 million to help the city with last year’s landslide. Mostyn said the city still has some of that money left over.

Mostyn said the territory would help again, but the city has to propose a project and come up with a cost.

A view of the landslide that closed Robert Service Way in Whitehorse over the weekend. (Virginie Ann/CBC News)

Premier Ranj Pillai responded to Dixon more bluntly.

“A few months ago…I was told I was disingenuous because I was concerned about the threat in risk along the clay cliffs,” Pillai told the legislature.

The Yukon Party criticized Pillai repeatedly in the fall sitting for a delayed promise to develop housing at an empty lot near the base of the cliffs. Pillai responded consistently that he had to wait for a geotechnical assessment of the property before taking bids from developers.

“So I appreciate the turn today,” Pillai said.

Yukon NDP Leader Kate White told reporters she’d hoped the government would have explained during Question Period how it was going to help the city.

“My expectation is that the Yukon government fully support the City of Whitehorse and whatever decisions they feel like they have to make in order to make sure that Roberts Service Way stays a viable transportation route.”

Last year’s landslides were caused by a heavier snowpack. The resulting spring melt saturated the surface of the escarpment, making it unstable. The City of Whitehorse has been working with geotechnical engineers to monitor the clay cliffs for landslide threats since that time.

-With files from Joseph Ho

Related stories from around the North: 

Canada: Spring melt in Whitehorse could bring more landslides, geologist says, CBC News

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