The Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal is the daily newspaper of Northwestern Ontario.
SORTING out the situation confronting Attawapiskat First Nation and the nearby Victor diamond mine is difficult at best. On the surface, all should be well. Mine owner DeBeers Canada spends a considerable amount of money in the community of 1,900 people — $40 million in business contracts in 2012 alone, it says.
It contributes more through an impact development agreement it signed when the mine opened — which earned it Mining Magazine’s Mine of the Year award in 2009 — though it agreed not to divulge details and the band office won’t. The company gives Attawapiskat about $2 million a year for use of its traditional land. It also hires locally and provides various training programs. Up to 100 of the mine’s 500 employees are from Attawapiskat.
While an audit of the federal government’s $95-million transfer to the band found paperwork discrepancies, together with the money the mine pays and spends, the people of the First Nation would hardly seem to be short of money. Yet a group of residents have been blockading the road to the mine over vague allegations that the money is not getting to the community.
DeBeers developed a comprehensive policy on aboriginal involvement in its operations. On its website the company “acknowledges the status of aboriginal people of Canada and their constitutionally entrenched rights” and “will work to strike a balance between these considerations and other economic, social and environmental responsibilities.”
“De Beers Canada believes that projects must benefit and add to the sustainability of local communities. Socio-economic development will be a primary focus through community participation in employment and business opportunities in all stages of the mineral development process from exploration, evaluation, mine development, production and closure.”
On arrival it began negotiating with individual families for permission to explore the land they said was traditionally theirs. One family of four has paperwork showing it would receive $10,000. But DeBeers spokesman Tom Ormsby said that changed with the impact development agreement. All money now goes directly to the band to be disbursed among residents.
Some houses on the reserve are warm and dry with modern conveniences and new vehicles parked outside while others don’t have proper doors or windows or even running water. When Chief Theresa Spence declared a housing crisis last year DeBeers responded quickly with the donation of a large trailer and Ottawa followed with two dozen modular homes. But many residents still live in wretched conditions.
The small protest group blocking the mine road are said by Deputy Chief Gerald Mattanais to have personal issues, primarily over employment. He said some people have lost their jobs at Victor, some have been fired and some failed to meet their employment obligations. The recent audit determined that federal employment training was not instituted in time to prepare people for mining jobs. But federal and company training programs remain in place.
Meanwhile, band manager Clayton Kennedy has said between his initial tenure there from 2001 to 2004 and when he was rehired in 2010, a “financial nightmare” developed. He believes the band was in over its head, hiring too many untrained people to run the band in an effort to reduce chronic unemployment, even at the risk of running a deficit.
Matching a remote community with modern mining jobs and managing millions of dollars ought to have led to prosperity. Instead, there are huge imbalances in living conditions and an inability to benefit from employment opportunities just down the road. DeBeers pays considerable money to operate on the band’s traditional territory and respects its “far-reaching wisdom and knowledge about the land and natural environment.” Ottawa transfers millions and is accused of paternalistic penny-pinching.
Making sense of this is difficult. It draws attention to the challenges of marrying culture, the environment and the economy into a seamless national solution.