Giant Mine community survey lacking feedback from critical groups
The Giant Mine Oversight Board has presented results of the first phase of a community survey about cleanup work at Yellowknife’s toxic former gold mine.
Launched in February, the survey is the board’s first attempt to assess public awareness of and trust in the remediation work. Results will be used to improve the board’s communication about the work’s progress.
The board is an independent body that acts as a local watchdog, scrutinizing the federally led cleanup team’s attempt to permanently freeze 237,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide – a byproduct of the gold roasting process – left underground when Giant Mine closed in 2004.
While the first set of survey responses shows high awareness of the project and varying degrees of trust in its success, a breakdown of which people answered the survey reveals a struggle to reach all communities and age groups.
Of 215 people who responded, only 12 were from Dettah or Ndilǫ. Only nine were under the age of 24.
The first phase of the survey was completed entirely online because of pandemic-related public health restrictions.
“We suggested going door to door, but that was just off the table,” oversight board chair David Livingston said at the board’s annual general meeting last week.
Johanne Black, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation’s director of treaty, rights, and governance, said the First Nation’s low response rate could be attributed to the polling techniques used. The lack of responses should not be interpreted as a lack of interest in the board’s work, Black said.
“That’s perhaps why the numbers are low, because this is not the Indigenous way of overseeing the project,” Black said at the same meeting.
“We do have interest in the work that you do. We are thankful, and the work should still go on.”
In a question period following the board’s presentation, Yellowknife resident Ian Gilchrist – who was the equivalent of the territory’s chief public health officer in the 1990s – raised further concerns about the survey’s accessibility.
He suggested complicated language and an online format presented barriers to engagement from some demographics, including Elders and youth.
“If we want answers, we can’t do better than to have conversations with people,” Gilchrist said.
Livingston admitted the first phase of the survey fell short.
“It’s not as effective a survey as it needs to be so that the results are really reliable,” he told Cabin Radio.
“We’ve got to get more proactive and, at the same time, avoid this sense that we’re targeting.”
Suggestions for broadening the survey’s reach included distributing it at Yellowknife’s airport, going into schools to raise awareness about the remediation project with youth, and getting youth involved in promoting the survey on social media.
Livingston also mentioned the possibility of visiting Yellowknives Dene communities to facilitate survey participation.
“We’re figuring it out as we go,” he said. “We’ll try to get better.”
Phases two and three of the survey are set to be completed by December 2022.
Long-term planning delays
Thursday night’s presentation from the Giant Mine Oversight Board also included the conclusions of its 2020-21 annual report.
The board stated the remediation project is in general doing well, meeting its environmental safety and social engagement obligations.
In terms of reconciliation efforts, the report states significant progress was made but the board continues to expect the federal government to “respond to repeated requests and previous recommendations for an apology and compensation to the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.”
According to the oversight board, territorial and federal governments are still not doing enough to demonstrate the local economic benefits coming from the remediation work. The report suggests developing a set of indicators that could be used to track and measure the economic return the project is bringing to surrounding communities.
“I really feel strongly that we all have a role in making sure that this work benefits residents, both in terms of the remediated sites and the training and capacity-building and the wages that should be accruing to residents,” Livingston said.
He shared frustration that more wasn’t being done by the territorial and federal governments to invest in a longer-term remediation economy in the Northwest Territories.
Black added that economic benefits should go beyond job training and contracts to include long-term infrastructural improvements to Yellowknives Dene First Nation communities.
“Ndilǫ and Dettah, even after the remediation project is done, are going to continue to look the way they are. No investment into the community in terms of housing or roads,” Black said.
“Our community shouldn’t look like that after a multi-billion-dollar project is complete.”
The board also raised concerns with delays in some long-term planning aspects of the cleanup, including a perpetual care plan that will set out how the site is managed once active remediation is complete.
The report recommended the City of Yellowknife, which has the authority to prepare a community plan and approve zoning bylaws, should begin on-site land use planning as soon as possible.
The city’s 2020 community plan stated it would wait until after active remediation was complete before beginning that process.
The active part of the cleanup process is expected to be complete in the next 10 to 15 years.
Giant Mine’s second season of full on-site remediation work begins this week. Cleanup efforts finally began in earnest last summer, 17 years after the gold mine closed.