The owners of the Northwest Territories’ Ekati diamond mine say a proposed new open pit won’t negatively impact caribou, but Indigenous governments are not convinced.
During a four-day public hearing about Arctic Canadian Diamond Company’s proposed Point Lake project last month, representatives questioned how turning the lake into an open pit will affect the environment and wildlife.
The Tłı̨chǫ Government, Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation, Deninu Kųę́ First Nation, Fort Resolution Métis government, and North Slave Métis Alliance were represented at the hearing. Of key concern: how piles of waste rock would hinder migratory routes for the beleaguered Bathurst caribou.
“For Dene people, caribou is more important than diamonds, it’s more important than the economy, and certainly more important than the proponent’s ability to make a profit,” said Mike Tollis, speaking on behalf of the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation.
“The lack of attention to caribou in this application signifies a lack of understanding of the Dene culture and what’s important to its sustainability.”
Bathurst caribou are identified as a species at risk by the NWT government as their numbers are rapidly declining. At its peak in 1986, there were around 470,000 caribou in the Bathurst herd. By November 2018, there were just 8,200.
There has been debate over what exactly is responsible for the decline, with possible factors including natural population cycles, irresponsible hunting practices, and climate change. Indigenous governments have said diamond mines play a large role, with impacts far surpassing those predicted in environmental assessments.
For its Point Lake pit, Arctic said waste rock needs to be stored at the site in order for the project to be economically viable. The company has proposed different designs for that storage area and agreed to keep a 200-metre buffer between the waste rock and another nearby lake and an esker, which the company believes will address concerns.
“This project cannot support and simply would not go forward on the basis of waste rock placement other than at the Point Lake site,” said Eric Denholm, a consultant representing Arctic.
But Tłı̨chǫ Elders have asked for overburden to be placed in smaller lakes so it affects less caribou habitat, and for any waste rock piles on the land to be smoothed so they act like natural hills.
The Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation said it was not willing to suffer more barriers on caribou range
“The environmental responsibilities of the proponent are the cost of doing business here. If these costs do not work for the proponent, then the project does not work for Łutsël K’é,” Tollis said.
Arctic said its plan to mitigate impacts on caribou and the environment includes caribou monitoring, ramps on an access road that will allow caribou to cross, investment of $500,000 over three years in research on the Bathurst caribou herd, and creation of an Elders’ group to advise about work on the site and monitoring.
Indigenous governments have asked for more commitments to ensure that the Bathurst herd doesn’t see a further drop in numbers.
“Everyone here understands, caribou or prosperity. It is a choice that the company is coming down on one side,” said Todd Slack, also representing the Łutsël K’é Dene First Nation.
While both the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board and Wek’èezhìı Land and Water Board decided the Point Lake project did not need to undergo a full environmental assessment, the Fort Resolution Métis and Łutsël K’é Dene said the project should have gone through the longer and more detailed regulatory process.
They are now asking the land and water board to ensure there is strict monitoring, inclusion of traditional knowledge, and limited ground disturbance.
“We think differently. We have a lot of experience on that land and we have a way of telling how things are in that area,” said Deninu Kųę́ councillor Patrick Simon of the importance of traditional knowledge.
“For us, when we see sick land, we feel sick. We see healthy land, we feel healthy.”
The Łutsël K’é Dene said the Point Lake project should not proceed until the Bathurst herd is restored to a sustainable population. The First Nation said the mining company should pay an increased security deposit for the project with the stipulation that Arctic live up to its commitments about minimal impacts on caribou.
Representatives for Arctic pushed back against that suggestion and said the company was confident in its plan to complete the Point Lake project in a way that doesn’t significantly impact caribou movement.
“You’re willing to make the predictions. You’re certain that they’re right, but you’re not willing to put any of the company money behind that prediction, money that would be given back to you if it was correct,” Slack responded.
Arctic has said the Point Lake pit is crucial to help bridge the gap between current and future mining operations at Ekati.
If it’s not approved, the company said, the mine will cease all operations in 2024. If approved, the project is expected to span around five years.