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Ontario's First Nations Deserve More of the Diamond Industry's Cash

With recent blockades between Attawapiskat and the De Beers diamond mine costing the resource company millions of dollars, tension is heating up around Ontario's "Ring of Fire."

Victoria Lean is currently directing and producing a documentary about Attawapiskat. She also took this photo.

North of the 50th parallel, there’s a fight going on that’ll shape a large part of Ontario’s economic and social future. Politicians are touting a 5,120 square kilometer area in northern Ontario named The Ring of Fire as a “generational opportunity” to improve the lives of thousands. The area boasts huge deposits of nickel, chromite, and copper worth over an estimated $50 billion, making it potentially economically equal to or larger than the Alberta Oil Sands.


Beside the obvious environmental and economic impacts, there’s another very important thing to consider—the First Nations residents. Before this ginormous industrial project goes ahead, one thing’s for sure: some complex relationships between First Nations, the government, and the mining companies need to be sorted out.

To understand how fragile these relationships are, we can look 1,100 km north of Toronto to where frustrated members of the Attawapiskat First Nation set up two separate roadblocks in February. This action threatened to shut down the billion-dollar De Beers Victor diamond mine, drew teams of Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officers, and prompted legal action for an estimated $130M in damages.

The beleaguered community of Attawapiskat shot into Canada’s national spotlight in fall of 2011 when their housing crisis prompted action by the Red Cross. This was followed by a good ol’ fashioned “blame game” in federal politics as politicians bickered about whose responsible for deplorable living conditions on the reserve.

Flash forward to one year later, with little improvement in relations between the groups, Attawapiskat’s chief Theresa Spence embarks on a widely-covered hunger strike that helped galvanize the international aboriginal protest movement Idle No More. Missing from the discussion at the time is that Attawapiskat’s traditional land is teeming with diamonds and that 90km from the reservation is a mine owned by the Canadian subsidiary of De Beers.


Operating in the far north means De Beers relies on winter ice roads to truck in 11 million liters of fuel, heavy machinery and explosives that can’t be flown in. A narrow trucking window of six weeks means that Native populations have a distinct opportunity to take action and draw much needed attention to the realities of their community. Blockading the ice road for 16 days this February might appear unassuming, but it was enough to make De Beers feel they’re being “held hostage.”

Setting up the blockade. Photo by Rosie Koostachin.

Back in 2009, another blockade cost De Beers $3.5 million and caused the company to hire mediator Cyndy Vanier. She helped identify key players and come to a resolution, however she wasn't available this time because she’s currently indisposed—Cyndy is in a Mexican jail, accused of plotting to smuggle Muammar Gaddafi's son out of Libya.

The blockaders at that time raised a series of 28 issues in 162 sub-categories, but by 2010, De Beers reported all issues between them and Attawapiskat residents were resolved (the remaining ones were between residents and their leadership, or between the community and the federal government). Clearly many issues were still top of mind; otherwise February’s blockade wouldn’t have happened. Ongoing concerns include the negative environmental impacts from the mine and the lack of benefits to the community. Mixed in this time were some ex-employees with work-related grievances and problems related to loosing access to traditional traplines. Regardless of the specific issues raised, the truth is that these Canadians are still living in abject poverty while diamonds are being extracted on their traditional lands and generating revenue for the federal and provincial governments.


In Canada, there are no laws dictating how mining companies and First Nations should get along, instead the two groups are left to hammer out an Impact Benefit Agreement, which is essentially a business contract. While IBAs are confidential, trust fund documents reveal Attawapiskat receives $2M a year from De Beers over the 12-year life of the mine. In exchange, Attawapiskat allows them to infringe on some treaty rights and grants unimpeded access to the mine.

Beyond the cash, De Beers promises that band members get preferential access to jobs, training and business opportunities. Roughly 100 Attawapiskat band members work at the mine, but unemployment in the community remains around 70% due to a lack of high school education and preparedness for job training.

Unable to resolve the February blockade, De Beers received an injunction and tabled a motion for $130M in damages against roughly half a dozen blockaders, citing “intimidation” and “unlawful interference with economic interests.” Representing De Beers is Neal Smitheman. He previously represented Platinex in a dispute with the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) First Nation near the Ring of Fire—the reserve said ‘no’ to drilling, was slapped with a $10 billion lawsuit and then, had its chief and five councilors jailed.

A tent set up by the blockade. Photo by Rosie Koostachin.

The sheriff carrying the injunction didn’t get one foot into Attawapiskat before Chief Spence kicked him out. The community is patrolled by the Nishnawbe Aski police force, not the OPP, who are the ones with jurisdiction over the ice road. While the Band Council doesn’t support the blockade and must try to resolve these disputes as per the IBA agreement, Chief Spence doesn’t want to see arrests for the blockaders.


The Attawapiskat blockaders  - who include women on welfare and old age pensioners - cannot afford a lawyer and legal aid does not cover blockades, according to Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, a community resident who's assisting them. Cree is the first language spoken by all of them, which makes communication and finding adequate legal representation an additional challenge.

Needless to say, when there’s a native blockade in Ontario things get messy and the police end up needing their own lawyer too. Much to the chagrin of De Beers, the OPP didn’t run in and make arrests, but instead took a “measured approach.” With lives lost on both sides in the Native land disputes at Ipperwash and Oka, the cops are pretty careful now. The cool heads of the OPP prevailed, no formal police action happened and the blockade came down peacefully out of fear of the lawsuit. But according to Jackie, community members still have unanswered questions about the IBA and environmental issues, and a lawsuit from De Beers may still be on the table.

The reality is blockades in remote regions are likely inevitable until another group that’s cashing in from the resource bounty steps up. While provinces like BC share 35% of mining royalties and taxes with First Nations groups, Ontario downloads absolutely nothing. Instead of sharing the wealth, the Ontario government suggests the best hope native communities have is to negotiate IBAs. Clearly, signing IBAs that promise jobs and cash do little to solve the First Nation’s infrastructure and education crises, and corporations can’t be expected to fix issues driven by 200 years of marginalization by the Canadian and Ontario governments.


As Native leaders push for resource revenue sharing with the province, the massive economic potential in the Ring of Fire will demand that politicians finally listen. Over 31,000 mining claims have been staked since the De Beers mine opened in the region in 2008 and some 20 other First Nations communities will be affected, including Attawapiskat. Last June, six First Nations warned they’ll stop development in the Ring of Fire if their concerns aren’t met. Due to the uncertainty involved in ongoing land claims conflicts, Canadian provinces are no longer topping of the list of best mining jurisdictions worldwide for the first time in six years. The balance of power and the fate of Ontario’s and Canada’s economic future may very well be in the hands of Canada’s First Nations, who’ve had 170 legal victories in recent years regarding resource development.

Regardless of who might be on the winning or losing end, no one is likely to succeed (except the lawyers) until the Ontario government steps up and splits the resource revenue pie fairly. If northern resource development is to continue, First Nations must have a meaningful decision-making role in the future of their lands—which is, after all, required by law.

More on First Nations issues in Canada:

The Wildly Depressing History of Canadian Residential Schools

Native Leaders Are Telling Enbridge to Go Fuck Itself

Idle No More Is about the Environment, Too