There’s enough arsenic down there to kill every living thing on the planet

Saying the mining industry started off on the wrong foot in the Northwest Territories is something of an understatement.

The Giant Mine, just outside of Yellowknife, used large quantities of arsenic in the processing of gold ore from the 1930s on. A remediation project costing hundreds of millions of dollars to the taxpayer is now underway. The federal government aims to permanently freeze the water-soluble arsenic dust in underground storage chambers.

“There’s enough arsenic down there to kill every living thing on the planet,” says Stephen Ellis.

In the 1930s, near the shores of Great Bear Lake, a uranium mine was established. Dene men from the local community of Déline were hired to carry burlap sacks of radioactive ore to the shipping sites without any safety measures. The community later became known as a “village of widows.” This uranium was sold to the US government for its Manhattan Project.

The 1990s then witnessed a staking rush for diamonds.

But Ellis says that the new generation of First Nations people, who have lived with the legacy of these projects, are now more interested in advocating more control over resources and the socio-environmental impacts of mining.

The Mackenzie Valley Review Board was established in 1998. This group, consisting of equal numbers of aboriginal and government representatives, assesses the environmental impacts of mining proposals. It decides if projects will proceed or not, and if so, will determine any mitigating measures.

Ellis says that one of the main reasons for this progressive system is that over half of the population is aboriginal including the sitting Premier. However, despite the efforts of companies like Rio Tinto and De Beers, Ellis says that there are still issues that the companies need to address. These include helping their employees wisely invest their newfound wealth and providing employment and training opportunities in careers like tourism.

“Many aboriginal people don’t want mining jobs or are not competent,” says Ellis. “These companies will be gone in a couple of decades and they should be looking at how they can contribute to the building of a diversified and sustainable economy.”