EDITORIAL: Mine cleanup moving forward without you

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The battle slogan proudly proclaimed on Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada materials related to the Giant Mine Remediation Project is “Moving Forward Together.”

Maybe it should be changed to “Moving Forward Without You.”

That’s the takeaway from the latest report from the Giant Mine Oversight Board.

The report is the latest bit of depressing news in a long list of depressing news items related to the old mine and its toxic legacy including, the need to replace the city’s drinking water pipe, the still-unmarked arsenic hotspots in Ndilo and the federal government’s apparent unwillingness to apologize and offer fair compensation to the Yellowknives Dene for the contamination of their land.

On top of that, the Giant Mine boat launch is expected to be off-limits to the public for several years due to remediation work. Just when you thought you couldn’t take any more.

Giant Mine opened in 1948 and operated for about 50 years. The mine was critical to the prosperity Yellowknife enjoyed during this time but there have been major consequences.

Throughout its mine life, the process of roasting ore to extract gold produced deadly arsenic trioxide dust. About 237,000 tonnes of the stuff is contained at the site in sealed vaults underground.

The Canadian government first took charge of the site in 1999 after Royal Oak Mines declared bankruptcy and walked away. Its plan is to clean up surface infrastructure, fill the largest open pit and keep the arsenic frozen underground at a cost of about $1 billion.

In 2017-2018, the Giant Mine Remediation Project team spent over $36 million doing care and maintenance work at the site in preparation for the real remediation work – which will get underway once the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board approves a water licence and land use permit for the project – but only 20 per cent of the workers engaged in the operation were Northerners and only four per cent were Indigenous, according to the report.

That is simply disgraceful.

Some of the world’s most abundant deposits of gold are embedded in the scoured rocks of the Canadian Shield. But for the Yellowknives Dene who live in this remote part of the world, that discovery has brought more misfortune than riches.

According to the Toxic Legacies Project, the Dene living in Ndilo became sick from air and water contamination as their community lay directly across the bay from Giant Mine.

In 1951, a small child died due to arsenic poisoning. The family received $750 in compensation. Others may have sickened and died as well, states the project.

The mine also damaged the local environment, denying the Dene their traditional hunting and fishing areas, particularly in the Baker Creek area.

According to the project, although some Yellowknives benefitted through work at the mines or other opportunities to trade, “Native employment at the Yellowknife gold mines always remained small.”

Things have not changed much.

If this territory is to continue enjoying the benefits of mining, this cleanup needs to be done the right way.

It has the potential to inject hundreds of millions of dollars into the local economy and will be a great opportunity for the local workforce to learn valuable skills.

Yellowknifer Chris Taff said it best at the Giant Mine Oversight Board’s annual public meeting on May 1.

“This is a 10-year project,” he said. “You can, in 10 years, develop pretty much whatever level you want out of people. So I think there’s an opportunity here.”

But moving ahead with the Giant Mine cleanup before the local labour market is ready will mean lost wages for Northerners and Indigenous people.

The project team should heed the oversight board’s recommendation to create a socio-economic and human well-being strategy with employment targets for Northerners and Indigenous people.

Bottom line, this is a local project. Therefore it must benefit local people.

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