Yellowknife's toxic history through the eyes of the Betsina family
'The government spoiled our lives,' says Muriel Betsina. 'Giant Mine spoiled our lives'
This story is part of a series from CBC North looking at Canada 150 through the eyes of northern families.
Muriel Betsina's voice is soft and nurturing as she explains, step by step, how she makes the perfect piece of bannock.
But ask her about the old mine site you can see out of her kitchen window in N'Dilo, N.W.T., and her voice drops.
Her fists clench.
This tiny Dene elder has a rage that boils deep.
"The government spoiled our lives," says Betsina. "Giant Mine spoiled our lives."
During more than half a century of mining, 19,000 tonnes of toxic arsenic trioxide dust went up the stacks of smelters at the Giant and Con mines and settled on the once-pristine land and lakes in and around Yellowknife.
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The gold mining industry began in the late 1930s. Giant Mine closed in 2004, leaving a toxic legacy that has deeply changed the lives of people in N'Dilo.
Betsina recalls stories from her childhood living in the bush of the Sahtu region of the N.W.T. As a young girl, she was sent to residential school in Fort Resolution. Soon after graduating, she moved to Yellowknife and met her husband, Frank.
"'We were very wealthy in our own way,' my mother-in-law said. She said, 'We got food anywhere we want. We set nets anywhere we want just along the shore. The fish were small like this but they were just pure white,'" recounts Betsina.
"Now you see a fish like this, a little bit bigger whitefish, and the scale is all black," she says.
"My mother in law said, 'You never see fish like that around here. Never see fish like that. It's from the mine. After they started building the mine.'"
Jobs at the mine
Betsina's husband was born in 1939 on the shores of Latham Island in a white canvas tent. As Con and Giant Mine brought in workers and supplies from the South, many Indigenous people in the area began building small wooden houses with the help of the federal government.
But that sentiment would change.
Tragedy struck in the early 1950s when several Dene people living on Latham Island got sick.
A child died after eating snow laden with arsenic. The parents were paid $750 in compensation.
"They didn't know," Betsina recalls. "They didn't know what arsenic is. We didn't know what the mine was doing to us."
Betsina still worries.
"When the wind comes this way, you see lots of dust coming. We make sure we close the window in the summer time."
A vow for justice
Betsina's son, Ernest, is now chief of N'Dilo. Sitting at his mother's kitchen table, he vows to get justice for his family and the community he represents.
"I know some members have traces of arsenic," says Chief Betsina. "It's the safety of my members that I'm concerned about."
Chief Betsina and his political counterparts have called on the federal government to apologize for the mine and to pay the nearby Indigenous communities of N'Dilo and Dettah $75 million in compensation.
Giant Mine is currently undergoing a billion-dollar cleanup that will see most of the arsenic dust that was captured by pollution controls stored, indefinitely, in artificially frozen underground chambers. There's been no attempt to address the contamination beyond the borders of the mine sites.
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While Ernest continues to appeal to the federal government for compensation, Muriel takes a different approach to try and heal from the mines' toxic legacy and protect her homeland from future contamination.
"I pray," she says. "Every night, every day."