The Yellowknives Dene First Nation has been calling for a federal apology and compensation for arsenic poisoning by the now-closed Giant Mine in the Northwest Territories for nearly a decade, but Indigenous Affairs has stalled and refuses to give them an answer, according to documents obtained by VICE News.
Beginning in the late 1940s until it closed in 2004, the gold mine poisoned land near schools and homes with enough arsenic to cause long term health effects for hundreds of people who live near the site. At least one child died after eating snow laced with arsenic in the spring of 1951, community elders say.
The government believes it is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to the question of compensation, according to a consultant’s report to Indigenous Affairs (INAC) obtained through Access to Information. Compensation for hundreds of people would be costly and could set precedent for other contaminated sites, but not considering compensation would put the government at risk of a legal challenge, the report says.
“If compensation is considered … this could add additional costs to the remediation of Giant Mine”
Today, levels of toxic arsenic in the soil near schools and homes in the Dene community of N’dilo are three times the allowed limit for industrial land use, levels high enough to cause long term health effects, according to a toxicology report commissioned by the Northwest Territories government and obtained by VICE News through an Access to Information request.
In 1999, the federal government became legally responsible for the cleanup of the Giant Mine site after the private company that owned it went bankrupt. Cost estimates for the clean-up work range from $600 million to $1 billion. But the Canadian government has not claimed responsibility for contamination of First Nations communities near the now defunct mine.
Trudeau has been on the apology circuit recently, saying sorry and offering compensation to residential school survivors and LGBTQ former military members. But after a decade of asking, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation still does not have an answer on whether they will be compensated for the gold mine’s toxic legacy.
“I encourage the Prime Minister to come up here and apologize to us,” N’dilo chief Ernest Betsina told VICE News. He added the government has been “stalling.”
The office of Indigenous Affairs minister Carolyn Bennett refused to say whether the government plans to offer compensation and an apology to First Nations people who had their land contaminated by the mine. Government officials have been meeting with the First Nation and say they’re “committed to reconciliation, transparency and evidence-based decision making,” a spokesperson told VICE News.
Internal Indigenous Affairs documents obtained by VICE News through an Access to Information request show the government has been aware of calls for compensation and an apology since 2008.
An internal consultant’s report from 2011 titled “Anticipating policy questions during the EA (environmental assessment)” includes requests from elders, including a statement in July 2008 from then-chief Fred Sangris:
“I call on the Board and I call on the Government of Canada and Minister of [Indigenous Affairs] Chuck Strahl to engage with the Yellowknives Dene to seek out proper compensation for all that is wrong, have been done wrong in the last 70 years of that operation, compensation for the loss of economic base, cultural values, traditional values … now the loss of land.
“We’re not seeking hundreds of dollars. We may be seeking millions”
“We’re not seeking hundreds of dollars. We may be seeking millions because … everything we’ve lost has cost more than that. It’s gone forever. We will never regain that back. Our people have suffered greatly,” Sangris said.
First Nations people say arsenic from the mine is causing long term health effects, including cancer, but there has been no study on that yet. Community members no longer hunt, trap or gather berries on their traditional territory because they fear arsenic poisoning.
Arsenic is a highly toxic carcinogen, according to the World Health Organization, and long term exposure can cause skin lesions, infant death and cancer.
A team of University of Ottawa researchers are investigating possible health effects this fall.
The 2011 consultant’s report obtained through the Access to Information Act states the issue of compensation is a high priority matter, but it’s outside the scope of the Giant Mine cleanup — a government project that began in 2000 to remediate the mine site.
The government’s own report says Indigenous Affairs “will likely be expected to provide a well considered response to the Yellowknives Dene” regarding compensation — something they have yet to do.
“If compensation is considered … this could add additional costs to the remediation of Giant Mine,” according to the 2011 report to Indigenous Affairs. “More importantly, it could set a precedent for other mines and abandoned sites.”
A VICE News investigation in September found there are more than a thousand contaminated sites like Giant Mine affecting 335 First Nations across Canada.
“Not considering compensation could also put [Indigenous Affairs] and the [Government of the Northwest Territories] at risk of a legal challenge, which could also add costs,” the report says.
“Continuing to use the simple response that compensation is outside the scope of the [environmental assessment], while accurate, will not be well received and will carry its own risks.”
The Giant Mine project team committed to informing senior Indigenous Affairs managers about the strong calls for compensation, the 2011 report says.
“Canada, through INAC Senior Management, is encouraged to review and respond to this concern,” the report states.
Despite internal documents from six years ago urging officials to respond to local concerns, First Nations people in the area haven’t received an answer from the government on compensation.
“They were the watchdogs from day one, but they did a poor job at that”
“It seems to me no one in the federal government wants to take responsibility on this and make a decision, especially in the upper level, with the minister or Prime Minister,” Chief Ernest Betsina told VICE News.
Johanne Black, director of lands management for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, said Trudeau had apologized to LGBTQ2 former military personnel and residential school survivors, and should apologize for other effects of colonization on Indigenous communities, like the Giant Mine case.
“Who has the responsibility in terms of permits, applications, notifying the public of accidental releases?” asked Black. “That responsibility was on INAC. Right now they are the owners of that site. They were the watchdogs from day one, but they did a poor job at that.”
What was the government’s responsibility?
When the Giant Mine opened in 1949, arsenic was widely known to be an industrial poison, according to a 2017 confidential Indigenous Affairs report obtained through Access to Information.
Technology was invented in 1907 that could have filtered emissions from the mine, but no such technology was installed, and there was no monitoring of the emissions, the report says. In its early years, Giant Mine emitted 16,500 pounds of arsenic trioxide dust into the air every day, according to one estimate.
Government officials expressed concern about the potential for arsenic poisoning at the early developmental stage of the mine, the 2017 report states, “but suggested that well-built tailings impoundments and roaster stack of sufficient height would eliminate the danger from arsenic trioxide dust.”
The report, which states its findings are preliminary, says regulation didn’t exist until the mid-1990s, and when environmental regulations were brought in, they were “geared toward monitoring rather than enforcement.”
Before 2014, the report states, “the federal government was responsible for land management, water management and land and water inspections in [the Northwest Territories].” The territorial government was responsible for air quality. “Cumulative impact monitoring was considered a federal responsibility.” Environmental assessments were a shared responsibility between the two levels of government.
Although the government’s own report says it is at risk of a legal challenge, and this fall’s health study could potentially bolster a legal case, chief Betsina wouldn’t say whether the First Nation will bring one.
“That has to be determined in the future,” he said.