The federal government says it is committed to “righting historical wrongs” and working with the Yellowknives Dene in response to a petition regarding the toxic legacy of Giant Mine. The First Nation says that reply falls short.
In March, NWT Liberal MP Michael McLeod presented a petition from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation to the House of Commons, calling for an apology and compensation for the former gold mine’s long-lasting social, environmental and economic impacts, and a role in remediation of the site.
That petition closed on March 7 with 32,192 signatures from every province and territory, thanks in part to a TikTok awareness campaign by Yellowknives Dene filmmaker and photographer Morgan Tsetta.
On May 5, the federal government tabled a response from Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs (CIRNAC) Dan Vandal.
“CIRNAC recognizes the importance of the Giant Mine site to the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and the impact that it has had on its community,” Vandal stated.
“Righting historical wrongs and working collaboratively to renew the government’s relationship with First Nations is key to advancing reconciliation in Canada.”
The federal government said it is in discussions with the First Nation over an apology, a draft community benefits agreement, and a memorandum of understanding. Ottawa said it is also “seeking a resolution” to the First Nation’s request for compensation.
In a news release on Monday, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation said the federal government’s response “reflects some progress” but “falls short of our expectations for a collaborative dialogue” regarding contracts for remediation work.
“The response repeats talking points presented to media before we had our first meeting with senior officials in January 2021, and does not reflect the discussion between the Yellowknives Dene and government representatives through more than three months of engagement,” the First Nation said.
According to the federal government, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation was awarded $45.8 million in contracts for remediation of the Giant Mine site.
The First Nation, however, said those contracts were for care and maintenance of the site before remediation begins. The First Nation said the contracts were not set aside but won through a competitive process and “considerable financial benefits” will go to partner companies.
“We are seeking not an opportunity to compete for contracts, but rather a formalized and direct role in the healing of the land, alongside the apology and compensation,” the First Nation said in its statement.
“Together, these comprise the path to fully accounting for the impacts of Giant Mine on the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.”
In March, following meetings with federal officials, Ndilǫ Chief Ernest Betsina said he was “optimistic” about the progress being made and anticipated there would be an agreement on set-aside contracts for the remediation project, alongside a memorandum of collaboration on socio-economic benefits, by the end of that month.
Procurement strategy criticized
Minister Vandal’s response stated that between December 2017 and November 2020, the main construction manager for the Giant Mine remediation project set aside around $15.8 million under the procurement strategy for Indigenous businesses.
He added that in the 2020-2021 fiscal year, the federal government provided $867,183 to the Yellowknives Dene First Nation to participate in the remediation project, including training activities through Dechı̨ta Nàowo – the education and training arm of the First Nation. Vandal said a five-year rolling training plan will start in 2021-2022 and continue for the duration of the project.
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation, however, criticized the procurement strategy, saying opportunities had been divided into smaller contracts. That, the First Nation said, meant it can only bid at a financial loss and is unable to invest in the equipment and people necessary to take on the work.
Giant Mine began operating on the doorstep of Yellowknife and Yellowknives Dene communities in 1948. Its gold processing operations emitted a highly toxic form of arsenic, known as arsenic trioxide dust, that affected areas where Yellowknives Dene had long hunted, fished, and picked berries, a region many Elders still refer to as “the store.”
While Canada knew about the mine’s dangerous emissions, pollution control equipment was not installed until the end of 1951. That was only after many Yellowknives Dene reported illness and a two-year-old boy died after drinking contaminated water.
The Yellowknives Dene have created a website that details the impacts of the mine on the First Nation and members’ calls for an apology and compensation.