Giant Mine contamination apology discussions underway, says Yellowknives Dene First Nation

Apology ‘teaches future generations about the horrible legacy of the past and how at this point in history, the government of Canada came together to do what was right for the water, for the people to ensure that the legacy of the land is protected for generations to come,’ said Jason Snaggs, CEO of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. (Avery Zingel/CBC)
A First Nation in the Northwest Territories is expecting to receive an apology from the federal government for the contamination of its land.

That’s according to Ed Sangris, chief of Dettah, N.W.T., who says the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) are expecting the process for an apology from the federal government, for the harms caused by contamination from the former Giant Mine, to begin in June.

A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada confirmed that the federal government has never apologized for the harm suffered by Indigenous people following the development and contamination of land caused by mining in the North.

For 70 years, Giant Mine produced over 237,000 tons of arsenic trioxide, and released poisonous dust into the air and water surrounding the mine. It is known by YKDFN as the “Giant Mine Monster” whose toxicity has displaced their people from deeply valued and respected ancestral homelands, infringing on their treaty rights.

“The destruction of the system that we have always enjoyed is a very, very painful history,” Sangris said.

This federal apology would be the first of its kind in the North. To date, there has not yet been a federal apology issued to northern Indigenous people for the role the government played in the contamination of ancestral homelands. (Chantal Dubuc/CBC)
Closure and reconciliation ‘finally’

After decades of grieving the loss of the spiritual and culturally significant area, the Yellowknives Dene says healing may finally be on the horizon.

“We’re finally going to have closure and reconciliation,” Sangris told CBC.

YKDFN is working with Minister of Northern Affairs Dan Vandal and Carolyn Bennett, the minister of Crown-Indigenous relations, to secure a resolution and receive cabinet approval.

A spokesperson with Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada did not directly confirm an apology was coming, but said, “We recognize the tremendous work undertaken by the Yellowknives Dene First Nation on this important matter, and we are now working with the First Nation on the next steps regarding their request for apology and compensation.”

YKDFN leaders and members have demanded that the federal government apologize for contaminating their ancestral homelands that were mined without their consent. They also called for greater involvement in the $1-billion remediation project and for federal compensation.

As early as the 1970s, the Yellowknives Dene called on the federal government to acknowledge the toll toxicity resulting from Giant Mine has taken on their people. In 2016, they were galvanized by a University of Ottawa report that highlighted the levels of arsenic in the water and surrounding area, extending into their territory.

Workers pour a gold brick using a bullion furnace in Giant Mine, in 1952. The unique deposits of gold required that the ore be roasted at extremely high temperatures. ‘Unfortunately, this roasting process also released arsenic rich gas, a highly toxic by-product,’ according to a federal site on the history of Giant Mine. (George Hunter/N.W.T. Mining Heritage Society)

Yellowknives Dene First Nation CEO Jason Snaggs told CBC they are “cautiously optimistic” after federal government has met with them a couple of times within the past month.

“The progress is a clear signal of Canada recognizing and willing to move toward collaborating with Yellowknives Dene First Nation to address this legacy which has plagued the Yellowknives Dene for so many years,” Snaggs said.

Federal government representatives are moving forward with a special claims process for an apology and compensation, along with immediate socio-economic benefits, and contracts for the remediation project, he said.

Legacy of the Giant Monster

The history of Giant Mine and its impact on the land will stand as a lesson, Snaggs said. So too will the apology.

“It teaches future generations about the horrible legacy of the past and how at this point in history, the government of Canada came together to do what was right for the water, for the people to ensure that the legacy of the land is protected for generations to come,” Snaggs told the CBC.

Left, historic hunting and trapping areas recorded within or adjacent to Giant Mine, and right, current areas avoided by Yellowknives Dene First Nation for hunting of animals like moose and waterfowl. The Giant Mine ‘really displaced our people from one of the most pristine areas,’ said Chief Sangris. (Courtesy of YKDFN)

“People will be able to see there’s no better people than the people who live here, who will continue to live here for thousands of years, that are best suited to be stewards of the land and the water.”

According to a federal site on the history of Giant Mine, Yellowknife’s ‘gold boom’ began in 1935, after bush planes made the area more accessible, prospectors poured in, looking for valuable minerals.

Yellowknife experienced rapid growth in the mining industry, leading to the production of seven million ounces of gold, and “one of the longest continuous gold mining operations in Canadian mining history,” says the website.

The unique deposits of gold required that the ore be roasted at extremely high temperatures. “Unfortunately, this roasting process also released arsenic rich gas, a highly toxic byproduct,” says the site.

More than 237,000 tonnes of that arsenic has been stored in underground chambers, where it will be frozen in place.

Snaggs said “we know that it will never return to how it was described by the elders as a breadbasket for the people.”

‘It displaced our people’

Dettah Chief Edward Sangris said his ancestors described the area with sheer fondness.

“They really enjoyed the area because of the abundance of wildlife, and plants, and it was one of the most sought after areas for the Yellowknives Dene. There was caribou in the winter, moose in the summer. It was really valued. Then came the devastation from the mine starting, along with exploration and development, which infringed on our treaty rights,” he said.

“It really displaced our people from one of the most pristine areas.”

“To reconcile with Aboriginal People, the government has to understand our way of life, our tradition, and our culture. They’re finally realizing it’s time to reconcile.”

Snaggs said he was grateful for the role that MP Michael McLeod has played in supporting their demands in the House of Commons.

These developments would not be possible without YKDFN members and allies that supported and shared the Giant Mine Monster petition, which has garnered over 30,000 signatures, Snaggs said.

A previous version of this story said an apology was expected in June. In fact, Yellowknives Dene First Nation expects the process for obtaining an apology from the federal government to begin in June. Mar 04, 2021 6:31 PM CT
Related stories from around the North:

Canada: Nunavut mine in Arctic Canada says it’s not allowed to harm Inuit harvesting, Canada, CBC News

Finland: The Arctic Railway – Building a future or destroying a culture?, Eye on the Arctic

Greenland: Canadian geologist raises questions about controversial Greenland mining project, Radio Canada International

Sweden: Reducing emissions could create up to 3,000 new jobs in Arctic Sweden says mining group, Radio Sweden

United States: Conservation groups sue government over Alaska mining road, The Associated Press

Hannah Paulson, CBC

Hannah Paulson is a reporter from the Northwest Territories. She grew up in Gameti, Yellowknife, and Liidlii Kue.

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