The Ekati Diamond Mine, owned and operated by BHP Billiton, is located 350 kilometres north of the city of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Construction began on the mine in 1996 with operations at the open and underground pits beginning two years later. This remote site is accessible by air and seasonally by a 475 kilometre ice road. With the implementation of a multi-stakeholder “Independent Environmental Monitoring Agency” (funded by BHP Billiton) and community monitoring programmes that involve affected communities of Indigenous Peoples, Ekati is one of the most closely monitored mine sites in Canada and has been upheld as a working model of corporate social responsibility (CSR). However, as demonstrated by testimonials from affected peoples and ecological indicators, this large scale mine appears to have had highly concerning social, micro-economic, cultural and ecological impacts.
Initially, BHP Billiton negotiated impact-benefit agreements with four affected communities of Indigenous Peoples: the Kitikmeot Inuit Association, the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council, the Akaitcho Treaty 8 Council, and the North Slave Metis Alliance. However, these agreements were made on a tight time frame and Aboriginal negotiators reported feeling pressured, overwhelmed, ill-informed and confused about the process. This disadvantageous negotiation position has been of ongoing concern during not only the expansion process of the mine, but also currently in the planning phases for mine closure and land reclamation. Barriers to the full participation of Indigenous community negotiators include inequitable positioning in terms of access to resources, technical expertise and time, as well as divisions between indigenous and non-indigenous understandings of the land.
Few financial benefits from the mine remain within the communities, as local royalty earnings add up to less than 1% of the mine’s annual profit. First Nations communities also raise the concern that they are generally not considered for higher paying technical positions that require training and educational backgrounds to which they have had little access. Instead, they are generally concentrated in lower income jobs such as truck driving. With housing prices skyrocketing due to the mining-based economy, this income disparity has disastrous social impacts. Meanwhile, the rotation of fly-in/fly-out short term work shifts has reportedly created social and family instability amongst workers and contributed to an increasing rate of drug and alcohol abuse. Though Ekati workers are unionized, they have faced stiff opposition from BHP Billiton during negotiations of collective agreements. In the past, workers have had to go on strike in order to win minimal concessions.
Significantly, Ekati is located in an environmentally fragile zone, and impacts on the wildlife populations—including caribou, wolverine, bears, ptarmigan and fish—and the land, have been noted by elders of the Indigenous communities. For instance, decreases in the caribou population, grizzly bear population and fish diversity have been observed, and are understood as a likely consequence of mine blasting operations and surface water drainage in the region. Furthermore, residents of the region can no longer hunt in traditional grounds, as wildlife migration patterns—particularly those of the caribou—have shifted. Not only are the animals integral to a sustainable ecosystem balance, but they also are an important basis of physical and cultural survival for Indigenous communities.
Meanwhile, accidental spills and seepage of tailings as well as sewage from the site, acid mine drainage, increases in uranium and aluminium residue in the air, and elevated levels of dissolved solids, potassium, ammonia, nitrates and molybdenum in local water bodies have kept local people on alert. Though cumulative impacts are unknown, water and air contamination are also of concern to communities located downstream (and downwind) from Ekati. At the current time, waste rock and tailings are being stored under permafrost barriers, rock ice caps and frozen core dams. However, given the evidence that global warming trends appear to be already impacting northern expanses of tundra, local Indigenous communities have raised the issue that there is no mitigation plan in place to deal with the impacts of the thawing ground. With the prospects of the future uncertain, those advocating for healthy communities—and the recognition of the fragile web of life upon which we all base our survival—continue to struggle to have their perspectives heard.