Elders, leaders, and staff of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation gathered at the site of Yellowknife’s Giant Mine on Wednesday morning. They held signs reading “my land, my future,” “right this wrong,” and “giant mine, giant issues,” as the Yellowknives Dene Drummers drummed and tobacco was fed to a fire.
The First Nation is asking the Canadian government to apologize and provide compensation for the mine’s long-lasting impacts. Its members also want a role in remediation of the site, including jobs and training.
“Our people are the ones best-placed to heal the land,” said Ndilǫ Chief Ernest Betsina. “The core of this traditional knowledge is land management, which is embedded in Dene culture.”
The First Nation says the former gold mine is a “decades-long toxic legacy of broken promises, displacement, contamination, and ongoing social, environmental, and economic harm.”
“The Giant Mine caused the most significant environmental disaster in our people’s history, which we continue to feel today,” Chief Betsina said.
Jason Snaggs, chief executive of the First Nation, said with a federally led clean-up of Giant Mine set to proceed, there’s concern that contracts will be awarded to southern companies who may not engage the Yellowknives Dene.
“Giant Mine has never benefited the Yellowknives Dene,” he said. “We did not receive any revenue from its operation, or any compensation for the damage it caused to the Yellowknives Dene way of life that is so felt today and will be felt for generations into the future.”
Giant Mine’s impact on the First Nation stretches back decades.
According to Dettah Chief Edward Sangris, Giant Mine is within the Yellowknife Preserve, which the federal government promised to protect for Indigenous hunters and trappers in 1923. However, Sangris says Ottawa “chipped away” at that preserve to make space for mining – without consulting the Dene – and abolished it altogether in 1955.
While the area once provided food and water for the Dene, Sangris said people today are afraid to gather berries, hunt or fish anywhere near it.
“The mine started operating more than 70 years ago. Since then, the land that the mine sits on has never been the same.”
Giant Mine began operations in 1948. Its gold processing operations emitted a highly toxic form of arsenic known as arsenic trioxide dust. According to research on the abandoned mine, emissions from Giant and the neighbouring Con mine totalled an estimated 9,979 kg per day in the early 1950s. Today, 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust remains stored in chambers underground.
While Canada knew about the dangerous emissions, pollution control equipment was not installed at Giant Mine until the end of 1951. That was only after many Yellowknives Dene people reported illnesses and a two-year-old boy died after drinking contaminated water.
“During the time Giant Mine was operating, Canada did not protect us from the arsenic poisoning coming from Giant Mine,” Chief Betsina said. “Our community remembers the illnesses and deaths caused by the mine, but Canada did not warn us of the contamination of our food and water. Our land is spoiled. It is not like what it was.”
For Johanne Black, the First Nation’s director of treaty, rights and governance, Giant Mine is a monster that has loomed over her life.
“When I look back on my life, I see the monster in small memories,” she said. “I remember the icicles hanging from our houses when I was a kid. And for us kids who played outside for hours at a time, we always went to those icicles and used them as popsicles.”
Black said as children, they didn’t understand the water and land was polluted.
That monster went on to cause a toxic legacy of “food insecurity, displacement, intergenerational poverty, loss of meaning, despair, misery, alcoholism, homelessness, and suicide,” she said.
The Yellowknives Dene on Wednesday launched a website outlining the impacts of the mine and the First Nation’s calls for an apology.
Matthew Spence, a director with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada, attended Wednesday’s event.
He said the federal government has been working with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation over the past three years to complete the historical research required to request what is known as a “recognition of rights table.”
At these discussion tables, Indigenous groups can negotiate agreements with the federal government to address longstanding issues not covered by treaties or self-government agreements.
“I think there’s lots of support for an apology,” Spence said. “Both the Dene Nation and the Government of the Northwest Territories recommended that we apologize and I think that’s why we undertook the process with the Yellowknives.”
Yet at this point, Spence said, the department isn’t ready to recommend to the federal minister that she apologize. First, he said, the department needs to review historical information and determine if the government infringed on the Yellowknives Dene’s treaty rights.
When it comes to remediation of Giant Mine, Spence said, contracts are awarded through a competitive bidding process. While the First Nation currently holds some of the mine site’s maintenance contracts, he said Canada cannot negotiate a sole-source contract with the Yellowknives Dene on the project. He said the federal government is, however, looking at ways to improve the First Nation’s participation.
“I appreciate the Yellowknives Dene outlining their concerns today to the media and ultimately to the public,” Spence said.
“I think it’s only through the reconciliation of the past that we will be able to move forward in a strong partnership together into the future.”