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With De Beers’ Victor Mine near Attawapiskat approaching the end of its lifespan, the company is looking farther north — causing a stir in Peawanuck, where residents are concerned about protecting their traditional lands.
WEENUSK FIRST NATION, ONT.—From a height of 300 metres, Jennifer Wabano looks out the window of the eight-seat float plane as it approaches the Winisk River watershed.
Wabano, a mother of 10, watches the mesmerizing landscape of the Hudson Bay Lowlands. String bogs resembling giant tiger stripes splashed across the land stretch for miles before giving way to fields of pristine, lime-green peatland that is thousands of years old. Scattered throughout the peat are hundreds of freshwater lakes of all shapes and sizes that were formed a millennium ago by retreating glaciers.
The lowlands are one of the world’s last untouched carbon storehouses, trapping the gases that warm the globe at an increasingly alarming rate. Bald eagles nest along the banks of the Winisk River. In summer, polar bears wander through town in search of food. Brook trout are caught in the mud flats of Hudson Bay. Migratory caribou and moose are staples in this community that continues to depend on the land for its existence.
Wabano looks down to where her ancestors — the Omushkegowak, or the people of the muskeg — roamed for nearly 4,000 years, and she thinks about the wolves at the door.
At the start of this year, a team from De Beers, one of the world’s largest diamond mining companies, came to Weenusk First Nation, also known as Peawanuck, to hold an information session with the nearly 300 Cree who call this remote, fly-in community home.
De Beers and its partners operate in 20 countries across five continents. They pull 600,000 carats of diamonds annually out of the company’s current Ontario operation — the Victor Mine, 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat First Nation.
Most living in Weenusk, a reserve with just one store, undrinkable water and a school that goes only to Grade 8, are uninterested in whatever De Beers is selling.
“This is my family’s traditional territory. It connects to the Winisk River,” says Wabano. “My ancestors, my grandfathers, used this land and the rivers and we haven’t stopped using it.
“We do not consent to have any mining on our traditional lands.”
But the open pit Victor mine will reach the end of its lifespan in four years and De Beers is fanning out across the North, searching for diamonds buried beneath the fragile ecosystem of the Hudson Bay Lowlands.
Exploration, of all types, leaves a mark.
“There are impacts right now from exploration and no one is checking those,” says Anna Baggio, director of conservation planning for the Wildlands League, a chapter of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society. “There is clearing of the land; big machines being brought in are being dragged across the landscape — creating ruts and deep grooves, disrupting the soil. Lines are being cut through ecosystems, changing the way certain species live in those areas.”
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