Yellowknives Dene demand federal compensation, economic benefits from Giant Mine

Members of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation demonstrated outside the Giant Mine site Wednesday demanding a federal apology, compensation and a formal role in the remediation of their traditional lands — lands mined without consent, and left poisoned with arsenic trioxide.

“Our land is spoiled. It’s not like what it was. We are fearful of harvesting anything near Giant. We are fearful of fishing in Yellowknife Bay and gathering berries close by. We must travel far to harvest safe foods and exercise our treaty rights. Even after all this, Canada has yet to offer an apology to us,” said Dettah Chief Edward Sangris. 

Yellowknives Dene were displaced from the western part of Yellowknife Bay, a culturally and spiritually significant area for harvesting. 

The displacement has never provided real economic benefits, Sangris said, even in the remediation stage. 

Two weeks ago, YKDFN sent a letter to the federal government outlining its demands, but has yet to receive a reply. 

The First Nation wants a set-aside contract arrangement — one that would make it the only eligible bidder on contracts — that includes water treatment, long-term environmental consulting and monitoring of the project.

Signs on display at the YKDFN demonstration in Yellowknife. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

They’re looking for a contract similar to what the Mi’kmaq received for the clean-up of the Sydney Tar Ponds in Nova Scotia. 

YKDFN launched a website – GiantMineMonster.ca — which links to a petition to the Government of Canada that is sent out by email when visitors subscribe to email updates.

Johanne Black, YKDFN’s director of treaty, rights, and governance says Canada has to come to the negotiation table to honour their nation-to-nation relationship. 

“To this day, Canada does not accommodate the depth of our rights and our responsibilities here. Its meagre and frustrating set-aside process for contracts offers us no pathway for creating the skilled workforce we need and the tangible benefits we deserve,” she said. 

Demonstrators line up with a banner at the demonstration in Yellowknife Wednesday. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

According to the website, Giant Mine produced seven million ounces of gold and the companies that controlled the mine made more than $1 billion in profits over the life of the mine, receiving millions in subsidies from Canada.

The effect of cultural displacement on YKDFN has wreaked havoc on community and culture, said Black.

“It still haunts our communities in the social effects that spiralled out from this poisoning of our lands: food insecurity, displacement, intergenerational poverty, loss of meaning, despair, misery, alcoholism, homelessness, suicide. This is Giant Mine’s toxic legacy.” she said. 

Black said Canada can put itself on the path to reconciliation with an apology, compensation and by setting a path to economic benefits to the First Nation.

Treaty obligations central to YKDFN demands on federal government

On their newly launched website, YKDFN outlines the history of how Canada undermined their treaty rights, and eventually poisoned their lands without consent. 

In 1900, the Yellowknives Dene signed Treaty 8, understanding it to be a peace and friendship agreement that would not affect ownership or control of their traditional lands. 

It did not include Yellowknives Dene lands on the North of Tı Ndeè (Great Slave Lake). 

When Canada imposed hunting restrictions, YKDFN led a boycott of the treaty over infringement on their rights and way of life, the website states.

A file photo of the Giant Mine site in Yellowknife, closed to the public. Roasting ore on-site caused harmful levels of arsenic trioxide to be released into the air and to seep from tailings ponds, causing at least one documented death, multiple episodes of arsenic poisoning, and the mass death of nearly an entire herd of cattle. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC)

This boycott led to the creation of a 70,000 square-mile hunting preserve for the exclusive use of Indigenous harvesters, and to protect harvesting rights from encroachment.

Despite this, the federal government removed areas on Yellowknife Bay’s western shores, opened it to non-Indigenous hunters and then removed the area, which includes Giant Mine, from the Yellowknife Preserve entirely. 

The preserve was finally transferred to the Northwest Territories Council and abolished in 1955, with no record of consultation with Yellowknives Dene. 

Roasting ore on-site caused harmful levels of arsenic trioxide to be released into the air and to seep from tailings ponds, causing at least one documented death, multiple episodes of arsenic poisoning, and the mass death of nearly an entire herd of cattle, according to the website.

Yellowknives Dene had always drawn their water from the lake since time immemorial, but were not adequately warned of the risks, said Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina.

“The Government of Canada remediation … should invest in a high degree of training and capacity building for our people to monitor the Giant Mine,” he said. 

Drygeese selects a sign at the demonstration. The First Nation wants a set-aside contract arrangement — one that would make it the only eligible bidder on contracts — that includes water treatment, long-term environmental consulting and monitoring of the project. (Avery Zingel/CBC)

“The time is now long overdue for our voices to be heard. We want commitments to reconciliation and economic development after what we have suffered from this mine, and we want results,” he said. 

Bobby Drygeese is a councillor in Dettah and chair of the board of directors for Det’on Cho, the First Nation’s economic development arm.

As a young person, elders and his parents always warned him not to go in the area of Giant Mine because it would make you sick.

Now that the mine is closed, Drygeese says it’s critical that YKDFN get a “fair share on contracts.”

“We’re going to make sure because we live here, that it’s clean and done the right way, because we’re the ones that are going to live here. Everybody else, they get contracts, do the job then they leave. We’re going to be cleaning it and making sure it’s safe for our families, our kids, grandkids and future generations.” 

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