Yellowknives Dene First Nation is calling for the federal government to make a formal apology and compensate it for the environmental, social, and physical damage caused by a now-defunct gold mining operation.
Dressed in masks and winter garb, some members of the First Nation held homemade signs with phrases like “No good ever came of a gold digger” during a Dec. 2 protest at the Giant Mine site in Canada’s Northwest Territories.
Located on the west side of Yellowknife Bay near the city of Yellowknife, Giant Mine was the economic lynchpin of Yellowknife from 1948 to earlier this century.
By the time Giant closed in 2004, it had produced 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide waste, 19,000 tonnes of which went up the smelter stack, dispersed via air into the surrounding environment. Much of the area around Yellowknife—including those in which the Yellowknives Dene traditionally hunted, fished, and gathered to such a degree that they are referred to as “the store”—remains contaminated with elevated levels of arsenic. A map produced by the territorial government shows many lakes in the area have elevated levels of arsenic, with the most polluted clearly centred in and around Giant Mine.
“Our land is spoiled—it’s not what it once was,” said Edward Sangris, Dettah Chief of Yellowknives Dene.
So far the federal government will only say it is reviewing the request.
“Hindsight is always 2020,” Matthew Spence, regional director with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada (CIRNAC), said regarding the operation of Giant Mine.
“Canada’s priorities were different then… It had a different perspective,” he said. “It’s difficult... for us to say today that (the government then) would have envisioned that this is where we would have ended up with Giant.”
In October, Yellowknives Dene First Nation released a 47-page report on the effects of Giant Mine on its community. It found that the contamination of nearby land and water—and, therefore, the game, fish, and plants the First Nation has traditionally relied on—forced members to go farther and farther away from home to source food.
Because arsenic is a naturally occurring and common metalloid (meaning it can behave as a metal or a non-metal), it’s often found with commercially valuable metals; in the case of Giant, gold was locked up within arsenopyrite ore. Removing the gold meant roasting it at extremely high temperatures, releasing an arsenic-rich gas.
Symptoms of acute arsenic poisoning, which can be fatal, include vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhea. Long-term exposure to elevated levels in the environment can cause skin lesions and cancer of the skin, bladder, and lungs.
In 1951, community members living near Giant Mine fell sick, and a child died from consuming arsenic-contaminated snow. The First Nation believes there were likely more deaths that went unreported due to Canada’s poor oversight of the mine, Sagris said, noting that over the decades many members have reported illnesses they attribute to the site. The mine operated for many years with limited environmental controls or oversight.
Cleanup (part of the legal remediation process) of the heavily contaminated site is expected to begin in 2021, after water and land use permits were granted in September.
In addition to an official apology, Yellowknives Dene wants an equal stake in the remediation process, including social and economic benefits for the First Nation in the form of education and jobs, said Johanne Black, director of Yellowknives Dene treaty, rights, and governance.
“We want to be equal partners in the remediation process,” she said. “We want to have Canada do the right thing.”
“There is unfinished business regarding us and Giant Mine and its effect on our territory and our people, and the burdens put on us in the face of the little benefit we have received from it,” Sangris said during the rally.
“They did this without consulting us… and the land the mine sits on has never been the same.”
Federal procurement process is based on a “value for money” bidding process, said Spence, and the government can’t grant a sole-source contract to the First Nation under the rules of that procurement.
“We don’t draw the lines (for bidders) at the Northwest Territories border,” Spence said.
But Yellowknives Dene said Canada broke their treaty with the First Nation by allowing the mine to set up shop in the first place.
When the Yellowknives Dene first signed with Canada under Treaty 8 in 1900, they believed it to be a “peace and friendship agreement,” Black said, and did not agree to cede control of their traditional territory; changes in 1920 to game laws that affected its traditional harvests caused the Yellowknives Dene to boycott the treaty. As a result, Canada established the Yellowknife Preserve, a 70,000-square-mile tract of land identified between the north shore of Great Slave Lake and Great Bear Lake, whose boundaries were set based on a map drawn by Chief Susie Drygeese in 1923.
This land was to be for the “sole use” of the Yellowknives Dene, Black said, but Canada almost immediately began to chip away at the boundaries. In 1955, the preserve was abolished without the First Nation’s consent or consultation, and the establishment of the mine on that land was in direct violation of treaty rights, said Black.
In an interview with Yellowknife-based Cabin Radio following the Dec. 2 event, Spence said he wasn’t ready to recommend that Carolyn Bennett, minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, apologize to the First Nation and that the government needs to review the research and history.
“They’re basically telling us to prove it first–‘prove the infringement, and then we’ll talk,’” Black said, in response to Spence’s comments. “That is not the right way. This is not a court battle we’re asking for.”
Spence told VICE World News the only “legal question” is whether or not the treaty was broken, as that’s what triggers the negotiation process.
Ernest Bestina, Ndilo Chief of Yellowknives Dene, said the Dec. 2 rally was “a good start.”
“I feel pretty optimistic that good things will happen for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation—at least we’ve let the government know our intentions,” he said.
Black noted the issue is still raw for much of the community. “It’s hard for them to get over Giant Mine until we get a formal apology. Only then will we be able to heal.”
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