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The issue: Reparations for the YKDFN

We say: Right the historic wrong

The concept of providing financial amends for historic injustices that have negatively impacted people to this day is getting renewed attention.

Reparations for American slavery, for example, is a proposal that argues that compensation of some sort should be paid to the descendants of slaves brought to this continent from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Dozens of community members and local organizations appeared for the first days of hearings.
Nick Pearce/NNSL photo

But who would be paid, how much and, most importantly, where would the money come from?

The first prospectors and miners in North America were the first people to live here. Indigenous people utilized minerals for tools, weapons and in their artworks. Then came the Europeans who would revolutionize the way gems, minerals, oil and gas were extracted, forging a major economic component in our country’s development.

That included Giant Mine, what was one of Canada’s richest gold mines, located in Yellowknife. Over its 50-year lifespan, the 900-hectare operation produced over seven million ounces of gold. It also produced arsenic-laden tailings and tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust literally blowing in the wind over Indigenous communities and Yellowknife.

That dust is now contained at the site in underground vaults, but did blow around freely for years. A 2019 University of Ottawa study concluded arsenic levels found in urine, saliva and toenail samples taken from residents in Yellowknife, Ndilo and Dettah are on par with the Canadian average.

While that’s good news for us living here now, in 1951 a Dene boy in Ndilo died of acute arsenic poisoning after drinking melting snow.

The mine was built on the traditional territory of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN).

Prior to her death last year, YKDFN elder Muriel Betsina was outspoken about the wake of destruction left by poorly regulated mining activities. She told a public meeting in 2018 the Giant Mine was and is part of a larger history of colonization.

“All the dust from pollution, from arsenic. The children used to get sores. Nobody knew anything about it. All their lives they lived in the bush. The lived a good life, as trappers and hunters,” she said, stating that she also had cancer.

“Take the message back to Ottawa. The people are asking for something that they never got in their lifetime: compensation from the Giant Mine.”

A week of public hearings should wrap up today in Yellowknife to weigh the federal government’s $1 billion plan to clean up of Giant Mine.

The hearings’ mandate doesn’t cover compensation, but the topic certainly was raised by YKDFN members and leadership.

Dettah Chief Edward Sangris said the YKDFN would need compensation and an apology from Ottawa.

Morris Henry Beaulieu said: “YKDFN should be one of the richest First Nations in the Northwest Territories. I shouldn’t have to come here and beg for compensation.”

Of course, that’s true.

In addition to health impacts as a result of Giant Mine’s activities prior to the era of strict federal regulation, studies across Canada have shown Indigenous people face numerous other issues from large industrial activity in remote locations: alcohol and drug abuse, along with increased STDs as a result of miners travelling in to work; more family violence and an increased interaction with authorities and the justice system; and less access to traditional hunting grounds, resulting in health issues due to a lack of country food.

Today, mining companies must sign a detailed Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) with all parties that could be effected by any new operation. Closure and remediation plans are accompanied by financial guarantees to ensure cleanup costs are borne by the company.

The concept of an IBA didn’t exist in the 1940s. The YKDFN has asked the federal government for an apology and compensation for damages and losses related to Giant Mine’s contamination of its land.

Ottawa enjoyed decades of resource royalties and the economic esteem of Canada being a leading mineral producer.

The Trudeau government has a moral duty to hear what the YKDFN is saying, respect the requests and produce results to help heal this shameful legacy.

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