Canada mining boom leaves natives in the cold (Attawapiskat international coverage) – by Chris Arsenault (Al Jazeera – February 11, 2012)

Indigenous community with “third world conditions” sits 90km from diamond mine, prompting fight for resource royalties.

Despite living just 90km from a massive diamond mine, Jackie Hookimaw Witt has watched poverty tear at the fabric of Attawapiskat, an indigenous community in northern Canada.

The northern Ontario community made international headlines recently, when the chief declared a state of emergency, as many houses lacked heating during frozen winters, and families were left sleeping in storage sheds, shacks or run-down trailers, often with no running water.

“Why are our people living in such extreme poverty when we are so close to this rich mine?” asked Witt, a mining critic born and raised in Attawapiskat. “There is something wrong with this.”

As mining companies around the world reap profits from high commodity prices, people in Attawapiskat are demanding a bigger slice of the pie from the diamonds extracted from their traditional territory.

“Our native politicians are pushing for revenue sharing,” where resource royalties from the Victor diamond mine would go directly to indigenous administrations, known as band councils, rather than straight to the provincial government, Witt told Al Jazeera.

Valuable resources

While high prices for precious metals and other commodities have profited mining corporations, they have led to desperate behaviour in communities around the globe, including an increase in copper wire thefts in some western cities and gold scavenging in Guatemalan garbage dumps.

“Great riches are being taken from our land for the benefit of a few, including the government of Canada and Ontario, who receive large royalty payments, while we receive so little,” Teresa Spence, the chief of Attawapiskat, said in a speech on January 26.

About 1,800 people live in Attawapiskat, where unemployment hovers near 90 per cent. Temperatures drop to -40 Celsius in the winter and in one case, 90 residents have moved into two portable housing units used by construction workers, with only two washrooms.

The Red Cross has been assisting community members and appealing for donations, in scenes that reminded many Canadians of third world poverty, rather than of life in a wealthy democracy.

A spokesperson for De Beers, the international firm which owns the Victor mine, told Al Jazeera that Canada’s government and indigenous groups need to work out some kind of revenue sharing agreement.

Presently, De Beers pays money to Attawapiskat via a trust fund the company has set up, although it says it is not mandated by law to do this.

“There are direct financial payments to the community on a regular basis,” De Beers spokesman Tom Ormsby told Al Jazeera, although neither he nor representatives from Attawapiskat have disclosed the amount.

The company has spent about $325m on contracts with indigenous-run business for services such as catering and contracting, Ormsby said. “More than 100 community members work at the mine.”

The mine extracts about 600,000 carats of diamonds per year. “In the short period of time we have been involved with the community, we have seen a lot of progress,” said Ormsby, adding, “we don’t want to dismiss the long term challenges the community has.”

Despite global economic uncertainty, De Beers, the world’s largest diamond company, saw operating profit rise by 64 per cent in 2011.

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