Canadian Cree concerns as De Beers looks further NorthPublished by MAC on 2015-10-13
Source: Toronto Star (2015-10-14)
Previous article on MAC: De Beers Canada paid only $226 in a year's royalties for its Victor diamond mine
Cree community looks on warily as De Beers scours North for diamonds
With De Beers’ Victor Mine near Attawapiskat approaching the end of its lifespan, the company is looking farther north — causing a stir in Peawanuck, where residents are concerned about protecting their traditional lands.
By Tanya Talaga Global Economics Reporter
10 October 2015
WEENUSK FIRST NATION, ONT.—From a height of 300 metres, Jennifer Wabano looks out the window of the eight-seat float plane as it approaches the Winisk River watershed.
Wabano, a mother of 10, watches the mesmerizing landscape of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. String bogs resembling giant tiger stripes splashed across the land stretch for miles before giving way to fields of pristine, lime-green peatland that is thousands of years old. Scattered throughout the peat are hundreds of freshwater lakes of all shapes and sizes that were formed a millennium ago by retreating glaciers.
The lowlands are one of the world’s last untouched carbon storehouses, trapping the gases that warm the globe at an increasingly alarming rate. Bald eagles nest along the banks of the Winisk River. In summer, polar bears wander through town in search of food. Brook trout are caught in the mud flats of Hudson Bay. Migratory caribou and moose are staples in this community that continues to depend on the land for its existence.
Wabano looks down to where her ancestors — the Omushkegowak, or the people of the muskeg — roamed for nearly 4,000 years, and she thinks about the wolves at the door.
At the start of this year, a team from De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond mining companies, came to Weenusk First Nation, also known as Peawanuck, to hold an information session with the nearly 300 Cree who call this remote, fly-in community home.
De Beers and its partners operate in 20 countries across five continents. They pull 600,000 carats of diamonds annually out of the company’s current Ontario operation — the Victor Mine, 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat First Nation.
Most living in Weenusk, a reserve with just one store, undrinkable water and a school that goes only to Grade 8, are uninterested in whatever De Beers is selling.
“This is my family’s traditional territory. It connects to the Winisk River,” says Wabano. “My ancestors, my grandfathers, used this land and the rivers and we haven’t stopped using it.
“We do not consent to have any mining on our traditional lands.”
But the open pit Victor mine will reach the end of its lifespan in four years and De Beers is fanning out across the North, searching for diamonds buried beneath the fragile ecosystem of the Hudson Bay Lowlands.
Exploration, of all types, leaves a mark.
“There are impacts right now from exploration and no one is checking those,” says Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for the Wildlands League, a chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “There is clearing of the land; big machines being brought in are being dragged across the landscape — creating ruts and deep grooves, disrupting the soil. Lines are being cut through ecosystems, changing the way certain species live in those areas.”
The company currently has no mining claims in Peawanuck, says Tom Ormsby, De Beers Canada’s director of external and corporate affairs. “But when we have areas of interest, we try to arrange community meetings to tell them what we’d like to do.”
Weenusk, more than 1,300 kilometres north of Toronto, is accessible only by canoe, small plane or, in winter, by a frozen highway to Fort Severn.
The traditional way of life is mixed with modern conveniences. The clapboard-siding houses are well kept. There is Wi-Fi but it is spotty. Fishing nets hang on clotheslines. Meat is smoked in large teepees of white canvas and blue tarp. All-terrain vehicles buzz up and down the streets. In summer, white salt is thrown over the dirt roads to stop the dust from kicking up.
The Cree here share a culture with the Cree along the James Bay coast. Theirs is a rich history: stories of Vikings in the Far North and of age-old wars against the Chippewa, of eight generations who have camped at Holly Lake — a large, inland body hundreds of kilometres south near the English River.
Everyone and everything in the North is connected. But not everyone agrees on mining or development.
Sam Hunter, a Cree Indian guide, is wary, fearing his community is not equipped to handle the mining giant’s intentions.
“They are interested in our rivers. I don’t know where,” says Hunter, who makes his living ferrying tourists up the Hudson Bay coastline to see polar bears. The whiff of interest by De Beers has caused a stir in this community, fuelling a seemingly timeless debate — how the old ways will change if a mining firm comes to town.
Hunter is now trying to learn the language of mining: What constitutes a land proposal? What exactly are exploration claims? How do business agreements work?
He has approached the band council to better understand its land use plans, but “it has been a struggle since day one,” he says. “There is no plan devised including youth or elders. Meetings dissolve. Our people have a right to know the issues.”
Chief Edmund Hunter says De Beers has been in the community twice and wants to hold a third information session. It’s difficult, Hunter says, because some of the youth want development “for their future.”
At the beginning of July, Sam Hunter tried to put up posters advertising Victoria Lean’s documentary After the Last River, a critical look at the benefits De Beers brought to Attawapiskat. They were taken down. He doesn’t know who did it.
Cree guide Sam Hunter, who makes his living taking tourists to see polar bears on the coast of Hudson Bay, fears the impact of diamond mining on traditional lands.
In January, band council member Georgina Pepan told De Beers it should not be “entertaining any thoughts of mining on our land.”
The land still provides.
“I remember, as a girl, the first time I shot a goose. I was so proud. As a custom, I went to go feed my grandmother. Little things like that is what I try to teach my own children.”
What are De Beers’ intentions in Weenusk?
Diamond mines aren’t forever, and within four years the Victor Mine, De Beers’ first in Ontario, is expected to reach the end of its life.
The Victor Mine is one of the richest diamond mines in the western world and an important part of the De Beers empire. Just east of the mine is Attawapiskat, one of the most poverty-stricken First Nations communities in the province.
The reserve of 1,900 people, on the shores of the Attawapiskat River along the James Bay coast, has had recurring states of emergency due to flooding. The floods have caused a housing crisis and many band members are still crowded into makeshift, mouldy homes without plumbing. It took years for a new school to be built after it was discovered that the previous school had been built on top of ground soaked by a massive diesel spill in 1979.
De Beers, the only major industry operating in this remote area, has paid the provincial government $40.7 million in taxes and other payments since the opening of the mine. It also pays up to $2 million a year in royalties to Attawapiskat. That payment is split between a trust fund controlled by the chief and council and the rest, which is used for community development and to pay Attawapiskat members who manage the band’s impact benefit agreement with De Beers, says Attawapiskat member Charlie Hookimaw.
The trust fund now totals $13 million. In 2014, the community received about $1 million; $480,000 went to business relations and $545,868 was spent on community development, Hookimaw says.
Between 35 and 40 per cent of the mine’s labour is aboriginal, mostly hired from Attawapiskat, says Tom Ormsby, De Beers Canada’s director of external and corporate affairs. And many local businesses receive spinoff contracts.
The diamonds from Ontario’s Far North have the second-highest value per carat in the world and are a hallmark of De Beers’ ethical diamonds commitment, each piece sourced in a “sustainable and ethical manner,” according to the company website.
De Beers, which in May put South Africa’s Kimberley Mine — the original mine on which Cecil Rhodes built his diamond empire — up for sale, is now focused on Canada. It opened both the Snap Lake Mine in the Northwest Territories and the Victor Mine in 2008. Currently, De Beers is constructing the world’s largest new diamond mine at Gahcho Kue in the Northwest Territories.
With Victor’s end in sight, De Beers, which produces 35 per cent of the world’s rough diamonds, is searching for new sources. It hopes to build on its $1-billion infrastructure investment at the Victor Mine by opening Tango, a new mine seven kilometres away. The environmental assessments are still underway.
De Beers has not placed exploration stakes near or outside Peawanuck, which the Cree claim as their traditional territory, but all areas of the North are being investigated.
“We look across the whole region. We look at possibilities and there are various stages of gathering information on the target area we have an interest in. We want to see what is out there and that is what I understand is our engagement in the area,” Ormsby says.
Diamond exploration is a slow process — De Beers was in Ontario for 50 years before it opened Victor.
“We’d like to try some early exploration at some point. We would be in the area for four weeks to take some samples,” Ormsby says. “If there is enough data in the samples, then we would return. If there is potential, we would return. It is baby steps, really.”
It is beneficial — although not legally required — for mining companies to negotiate impact benefit agreements with local First Nations. An IBA outlines the intention of the project, the responsibilities of the company and the community’s share in economic benefits. These agreements are often seen as legally binding and arise from memos of understanding.
After an information session in Weenusk in January, De Beers wanted to stage a second one in June, but it was cancelled.
“Every community has its own process,” says Ormsby. “You go in on invitation of the community. Unfortunately, the community informed us that the meeting could not take place. We understand that is part of the process. We’ll stay in touch.”
First Nations involvement is essential to working in the North, he says.
Most of the Hudson Bay Lowlands is undeveloped and physically inaccessible without the help of First Nations communities, which can have airstrips, power and rudimentary supplies.
“We prefer to do this up front. It is much better when people are aligned with understanding,” Ormsby says. “We have worked in the area for so long, we understand each community understands it in their own way. Then the decisions that are made are the best for everybody.”
The Victor Mine: A case study
Toronto-based conservationists at the Wildlands League have been investigating the long-term consequences of De Beers’ Victor site, studying hundreds of pages of environmental assessments and freedom of information documents, and seeking feedback from the Ministry of the Environment.
What the league says: Trevor Hesselink, the league’s director of policy and research, has concluded that De Beers’ environmental monitoring record at the Victor Mine is dubious at best and that the provincial Environment Ministry has failed to monitor the mine.
What De Beers and the ministry say: De Beers is required to conduct extensive groundwater, surface water and ground subsidence monitoring, says Kate Jordan, a spokesperson for the ministry. “An extensive monitoring program was established by De Beers and approved by the ministry to test and evaluate predicted effects on the ecological system,” Jordan says.
What the league says: None of the required annual mercury performance monitoring reports from 2008 to 2014 contained data from two specific monitoring stations — one being the ultimate downstream station from the mine, according to freedom of information documents and De Beers’ annual reports. This means that for six years, Ontario was not given all the information the province required concerning water samples, Hesselink says.
“When you add up all the mercury requirements they are supposed to do just for this creek alone (Granny Creek), never mind the rest of the landscape, they just barely meet the halfway point in terms of reporting requirements — 19 out of 36 data points and the ministry didn’t notice,” he says.
What the ministry says: The ministry denies this. Jordan says data isn’t kept on a strictly station-by-station basis but clumped into groups.
“Water quality data for both the North and South Granny Creek have been reported in annual mercury monitoring reports. The data provided in the company’s annual report is not presented on a station-by-station basis. Data has been clumped comparing stations upstream of the mine site to those downstream of key features,” Jordan says.
Regarding the league’s concerns with the 2013 and 2014 mercury reports, Jordan says “dialogue is pending the review of the reports by technical staff.”
* Daily water draining
What the league says: Of special concern is the daily dumping of up to 150 million litres of water from the Victor pit into the Attawapiskat River since the marshlands must be dry in order to use drilling equipment and access the diamond-bearing ore.
What the ministry says: While the permit allows a maximum water taking of 150 million litres per day from the pit, Jordan says the daily average is closer to 79 million litres per day. “The data collected to date does not indicate that pit dewatering activities carried out at the site or the discharge of mine water to the Attawapiskat River is increasing mercury concentrations in the receiving waters or adjacent peat lands,” Jordan says.
What De Beers says: “We’ve been below the permit levels since we’ve had them.”
* Wetlands and bogs
What the league says: The boreal peat bogs of the Hudson Bay Lowlands store carbon at higher concentration densities than almost anywhere on Earth. When you dry out the peat moss in order to build a mine, you are mobilizing the stored mercury and carbon, says Hesselink. When drilled peat bogs are exposed to the elements, they decompose, evaporate and release carbon into the atmosphere.
What De Beers says: There has been no impact from the activity of the mine, but there are mitigation plans in place in case there is. The company has five different universities studying the impacts of mining. “We are the first development in the area. We made a number of commitments; for example, we have been examining peat in subarctic climates,” says Tom
We carry out all these things and these come to the table when we have discussions,” says De Beers Canada’s Tom Ormsby.
* Waste Rock
What the league says:
De Beers has been approved to mine as deep as 230 metres, but Hesselink says there is a “substantial discrepancy” between what is identified in the federal environmental assessment study and how deep the company claims to be digging. The fear is that the waste rock taken out of the pit contains relatively high levels of sulphate, which increases with depth. Once piled around the mine it can act as a trigger that converts the mercury already present in the wetlands into the toxic methylmercury.
What De Beers says: The working depth of the mine was federally approved at 280 metres, says Ormsby.
“The way the environmental process works, at least for Victor, it was a federal review first. The federal minister signed off (in August 2005) and then the Ontario government signed off. The province signed off in October 2005 and the community ratified it in November 2005.
“We submitted what the mine plan would be to the end of life of the mine. There is no change to that scope at all, or otherwise we would have to resubmit … My understanding is it has always been to 280,” says Ormsby.
What the league says: Methylmercury is a bioaccumulating neurotoxin. It enters the base of the food chain, and is passed upward to the fish and then to the mammals that eat them, including humans. It can cause devastating neurological effects and cognitive problems, with children and women of child-bearing age being particularly at risk. Hesselink says De Beers is dumping sulphate into the Attawapiskat without understanding the effects of what it will do.
What the ministry says: Jordan says that monitoring “shows no change to any mercury levels found in fish in the Attawapiskat River due to dewatering.”
What De Beers says: Ormsby says mercury in rivers has been a concern since well before De Beers arrived in northern Ontario. “It is a naturally occurring thing, in the peatlands. It is from coal-fired plants. It settles into peat and bog and any time it is dry, it is released naturally,” he says.
What the league says: Hesselink says that emails and requests for meetings sent to the ministry have been met with “dead silence.” “We have essentially flagged for them violations of permits, which is a very significant public concern, in a fairly credible and well-researched way, and we are getting nothing back,” says Hesselink.
What the ministry says: There has been dialogue between the league and the ministry since 2004 regarding potential environmental impacts associated with the project, Jordan says.