MAC: Mines and Communities

Are diamonds a Cree's best friend?

Published by MAC on 2004-04-05

Are diamonds a Cree's best friend?

By DAN KOOSES, Globe and Mail Update

Diamond giant De Beers is developing Ontario's first diamond mine on James Bay in the traditional territory of the Mushkegowuk Cree.

De Beers says the mine can help the Cree overcome poverty. The Cree worry development may ruin their way of life. For the Cree, the mining money will never last. The land - that's the Cree riches. De Beers says the mine will have minimum impact on people and the environment. In the lands of the Mushkegowuk, the people aren't so sure.

There is no way that you can go into the wildest place left in Ontario and do no harm.

The mine will require a network of winter roads, a fuel pipeline, housing facilities for hundreds of workers, an airstrip that can handle a Hercules, ocean-going oil tankers in James Bay for the first time and other facilities; not a small footprint, but a major industrial complex in the biological heart of the traditional lands of the Mushkegowuk Cree.

In the pristine ecosystem of the James Bay lowlands, there's never been an industrial project of this magnitude. The Cree are worried.

The Cree have reason to be skeptical about the claims of resource developers. The last time, resource developers sold them on the wonders of beaver hats, and they watched the market dry up as fashion changed. The effects on the Cree trappers were devastating.

Perhaps diamonds are not a Cree's best friend. They certainly aren't the friends of the Kalahari Bushmen, who, Survival International reports, were pushed out of their traditional lands to make way for De Beers diamond exploration in Botswana.

On the other hand, there is some money to be made: almost $1-billion dollars to build the mine and $100-million a year to operate it. More than $2-billion in projected revenues. More than 600 construction jobs and 400 jobs in the mine.

While others - De Beers, mining suppliers and both levels of government - may benefit from the mine, it seems likely that the Mushkegowuk Cree will benefit very little, if at all. Jobs will go to outsiders, local businesses will boom in the short-term, and spin-off industries will not likely come to James Bay. The Mushkegowuk will, however, be left with the environmental risks and a limited say on how the lands and resources will be developed.

One of the places where the Cree might have a say is in the federal environmental-assessment process. De Beers has just released its comprehensive study on the anticipated environmental effects of the project. It will now be up to the federal government to decide if a diamond mine will be socially and environmentally acceptable in a place that has so far remained untouched by large-scale industrial development.

To help navigate the federal and provincial regulatory process, De Beers has retained the services of GPC, one of the country's biggest lobbying firms. Of course GPC's political connections to the federal Liberals are impeccable.

With no funds for the independent technical advice needed to review the confident claims of De Beers engineers and scientists, let alone pay for professional arm-twisters, the Cree are stuck on the outside of the federal regulatory process.

The Cree are calling on the federal government to level the playing field and provide funding for an independent review of De Beers thousands of pages of technical studies.

So far their pleas have gone unanswered.

James Bay isn't South Africa, but this is a familiar story of a powerful foreign company with a tainted past in search of diamonds in a land far from the corridors of power. And some of the poorest people in Canada live on the land where the diamonds are found. They'll still be there when the diamonds are gone. Who knows if they will be better off?

Dan Kooses is deputy grand chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation and is responsible for the organization's resource and economic development portfolio.


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