The Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) on Wednesday renewed its call for an apology from Canada and compensation for environmental damage from the operations of Giant Mine in a demonstration held at the former mine site.

At the site north of Yellowknife, community leaders spoke about the mine’s pollution of the local environment and its effects on Dene people since the gold mine was established in the 1940s.

A prayer and feeding the fire ceremony preceded speeches by community leaders.

Karen Martin, front, and Margaret Erasmus hold up a banner as Edward Sangris, Dettah chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation speaks at a demonstration at the Giant Mine site on Wednesday, where he renewed a call for an apology from the federal government and compensation for environmental damage from the mine. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

“Giant Mine was established within the Yellowknife Preserve, which Canada promised to protect for the exclusive use of Indigenous hunters and trappers,” said Dettah Chief Edward Sangris, from a small stage near the NWT Mining Heritage Society building.

“Canada failed to honour that promise. It allowed the Yellowknife Preserve to be summarily abolished in 1955 and it permitted the operators of Giant Mine to take the gold, and create a toxic legacy of contamination of the land and interference with our rights to hunt, trap and gather food and medicine, without any compensation or consultation with us. We are calling on Canada to sit at a table with us to determine just, fair and equitable compensation for these historic wrongs.”

Ndilo Chief Ernest Betsina criticized Canada for not protecting the Dene from arsenic poisoning that the mine caused.

“Our community remembers the illnesses and deaths caused by the mine, but Canada did not warn us of the contamination of our food and water. Our land is spoiled. It is not like what it was. We are fearful of harvesting anything near Giant Mine. We are fearful of fishing in the Yellowknife Bay and gathering berries close by.

“We call on the Government of Canada to come to the table to ensure that after so many decades of this toxic legacy, the Yellowknives Dene people will benefit from the clean-up of the lands, and create a new legacy of skills, jobs, and a healing of the land.”

Nora Taylor, left, holds up a banner as Johanne Black, director of treaty, rights and governance with the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) speaks at the demonstration. Jason Snaggs, CEO of YKDFN stands behind Black. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

Johanne Black, director of treaty, rights and governance with the YKDFN called Giant Mine a “shape-changing monster” that has hung over many generations of Yellowknives Dene.

She recalled her time as a child playing with icicles and in the dust in the area, oblivious to the dangerous environmental results of the mine.

“Canada’s apology and compensation to us for creating this monster is long overdue. If we are to confront the legacy of the Giant Mine, we must have our rights to manage and steward our environment respected. For Canada and YKDFN to move forward in the spirit of reconciliation and healing requires an apology supported by a commitment to repair the harms suffered. To be most meaningful, this apology must come from Canada while our elders who lived through the harms caused during Giant Mine’s active operations are still living.”

DJ Drygeese, left; Edward Sangris, Dettah chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation; Randy Baillargeon, Cody Drygeese and Bobby Drygeese perform a prayer ceremony as Verna Crapeau (front) feeds the fire with tobacco. Blair McBride/NNSL photo

YKDFN CEO Jason Snaggs opened his speech by stating that Giant Mine never benefitted the Yellowknives Dene from revenue nor from any compensation for the damages caused.

“We call upon the Government of Canada to ensure a set-aside contract arrangement for the Yellowknives Dene to address aggregate provision, water treatment, and long-term environmental consulting and monitoring of the Giant Mine Remediation Project. While the Mi’kmaq received a set-aside procurement contract for the clean-up of the Sydney Tar Ponds, no such arrangement has been made with YKDFN, and we are already seeing southern companies benefiting from the remediation contracts. Why is a set-aside agreement good enough for one First Nation, but not for another? Canada has an opportunity now to reconcile the wrongs of the past and do justice for the future generations who will be the caretakers of the Giant Mine site in perpetuity.”

McLeod reiterates support for apology

Michael McLeod, MP for the NWT said on Thursday that progress is being made towards making an apology to the Yellowknives Dene, after he said in January that he supports an apology and that it could go before the federal cabinet.

“There have been joint efforts to come together on providing a report that documents the history. We’ve had discussions throughout. The federal government is aware that the YKDFN is looking for an apology. In my opinion the government has been clear that we have to work out issues in a nation to nation fashion. I’ll be doing my part to ensure that happens.”

He couldn’t say when an apology could be expected and explained that an apology is one among many issues have to be put on the table for discussion.

However, he said he’s working on tabling a petition in the House of Commons on the YKDFN’s demand for an apology and compensation.

McLeod also said there has been progress in investigating the history of the mine and its effects on the Yellowknives Dene, as demonstrated in the publication of a research report in October.

The Summary of Research on the Establishment, Administration and Oversight of the Giant Mine and its Impacts on the Yellowknives Dene First Nation can be accessed here on the new website Giant Mine Monster launched by the YKDFN.

McLeod acknowledges that the impact of the mine on the Yellowknives Dene shows the government “should have and could have” done more to safeguard Indigenous rights and interests which is the responsibility of the federal government.

“There is probably no other Indigenous group in the NWT more affected by development than the Yellowknives Dene,” he said. “These people were displaced from their traditional territories and pushed to the sidelines. Their health was ignored. There was cultural loss. There are so many ways they were affected,” he said.

On the issue of the YKDFN seeking a larger role in remediation contracts, McLeod believes the current tendered contract approach needs to be examined and that the YKDFN’s desire for sole-source contracts should be considered.

“I think the government is receptive to those concerns. Minister (of Crown-Indigenous Relations) Bennett has said we all want strong Indigenous participation in contracts and we have to work towards making that happen.”

Remediation of the mine site is expected to begin in 2021, after Northern Affairs Minister Dan Vandal gave final approval of water license and land use permits on Sept. 16.

Blair McBride

Blair McBride covers the Legislative Assembly, business and education. Before coming to Yellowknife he worked as a journalist in British Columbia, Thailand and Ontario. He studied journalism at Western...

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