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Deline self-government agrees to mine cleanup plan

photo courtesy of the Government of Canada

Members of the Deline Got’ine Self-Government will have a greater role in the clean up of abandoned mines in the Sahtu after a governance agreement was signed with the federal government last month.

A Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada map shows the mines that will be involved in the Great Bear Lake mine remediation efforts after a recent historic agreement was signed between the federal government and the Deline Got'ine Community Government. image courtesy of the Government of Canada

Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs issued a news release on Feb. 24 announcing the creation of the Great Bear Lake Remediation Project, which creates a co-management governing body to ensure that members of the Deline First Nation get the maximum economic benefit from ongoing work.

The project is expected to take between five and seven years with many years of site monitoring expected thereafter.

Leeroy Andre, elected leader of Deline, said he's looking forward to restoring the traditional lands of the original inhabitants and bringing a positive development for the community.

“The community of Deline welcomes the signing of the Great Bear Lake Remediation Project Governance Agreement,” Andre stated. “The agreement recognizes a government-to-government relationship between Deline Got’ine Government and Canada and commits us to working together to restore the long-damaged area to a state acceptable to Deline while ensuring that the project will leave significant social, economic and cultural benefits to our community.”

Andre added that he's looking forward to the project bringing benefit to the community and Canadians “as we restore this magnificent site to preserve the integrity of the biosphere.”

Both Dan Vandal, Northern Affairs minister, and Michael McLeod, member of Parliament for the Northwest Territories, emphasized the need for the Government of Canada to work cooperatively and ensure local people are benefitting.

“This agreement allows us to move forward together, as partners, on this important project to restore the land while protecting and maintaining the ecological integrity of Great Bear Lake and its watershed, which is part of the Tsa Tue Biosphere Reserve and of the utmost importance to the people of Deline,” stated Vandal.

McLeod stated that the agreement allows for “local decision making” to drive the “economic and environmental future of the North.”

Highest-risk sites

During the federal government’s last budget in 2019, a Northern Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program was created to clean up “the largest and highest-risk” old mines in the Northwest Territories and Yukon.

In August 2019, Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett announced $2.2 billion would go toward the reclamation of eight Northern mines through the Northern Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program. Those mines include mines on the east end of Great Bear Lake near Port Radium in the Sahtu, Giant Mine in Yellowknife and Cantung Mine, west of Nahanni National Park.

There are also another five remediation projects in Yukon.

The Great Bear Lake Mine Remediation sites include the former El Bonanza Mine, Contact Lake Mine, Sawmill Bay Mine, Terra North Mine, and three other sites of the Silver Bear Mines- Northrim, Norex, and Smallwood. 

All are located in the same remote area about 250 km east of Deline and 425 km northwest of Yellowknife - mostly within the Sahtu Dene and Metis Comprehensive Land Claim Agreement.

Some of the Silver Bear Mines sites overlap with the Tłı̨chǫ Mǫwhì Gogha Dè Nįįłèè Boundary.

“Due to their proximity to one another, the clean-up of these sites will be bundled under one project, reducing the impact to the environment and overall costs,“ stated Kyle Fournier, communications officer with media relations and ministerial liaison with CIRNAC. 

“The remediation will include capping tailings at multiple sites, treating contaminated soils, proper disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste, and removing physical hazards from the sites.”

Fournier declined to say how much money the project will get out of the abandoned mines program.

"Specific funding amounts per project are not disclosed as it could impact the transparency of procurement processes," he said.

Committees defined

The news release details specifically how the governing structure will work between the two governments. The first of two committees – called a Remediation Management Committee – will include three members from the Deline government and three from Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Canada Affairs. They will provide oversight and guidance for the delivery of the project, monitor project performance, and ensure that the interests of the participants are carried out in the project’s governance structure. The group will also act as a dispute mechanism when conflict arises.

There will also be an Operating Committee, which will comprise four representatives from the Deline government, a project manager and up to three federal delegates. That committee's role will be to provide environmental and operational advice throughout the project and consult with the project team on such issues as ongoing site operations, construction implementation and monitoring of the work being done.

Doug Matthews, an advisor to the community who was involved in the creation of the governance agreement said the remediation work will entail a unique co-management relationship between the two governments that should be celebrated by northerners.

"I think the fundamental thing with this agreement is that it is the first of its kind - I'm sure it is the first in the NWT and maybe the first in Canada - for a community government in Deline to work with the Government of Canada in this way," he said.

"Instead of the community going to the federal government or going to a company seeking benefits (from remediation) – the community is involved in establishing those benefits. This is different from what has been done in the past."

File information: Mines involved in the Great Bear Lake Governance Agreement 
Source: Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada

Silver Bear Mines

• Five sites on the Camsell River mined for silver, copper and bismuth from 1969-1985
• Mostly underground mining, with a small amount of surface mining
• Terra Mine was the largest of all the sites, with a mill, large camp, tank farm, docks, and many mine openings
• Norex, Northrim, Graham Vein and Smallwood were small exploration/mine sites

Contact Lake Mine

• Underground silver and uranium mine, operated for short periods from 1930-1980
• Medium-sized site with headframe, a small amount of very old camp buildings, and mine openings
• Camp on Contact Lake shoreline and mine on ridge above with limited access
• Dock area at Echo Bay, East Arm of Great Bear Lake

El Bonanza and Bonanza Mines

• Two very small surface/underground silver mines, operated for short periods from 1934-1972 
• El Bonanza Mine is on Silver Lake and Bonanza Mine is on Whale Lake. There are abandoned fuel tanks and an overgrown airstrip on Great Bear Lake.
• Small number of buildings and mine openings at each site
• Overgrown roads and trails connect the sites but access is very limited

Sawmill Bay

• Used for industrial activities from 1930 to 1987, including a sawmill, barge and air transportation area for uranium ore, airfield and basecamp for military activities (DEW Line) and a commercial fishing camp
• Numerous old buildings and roads, including airstrips, but no other major infrastructure