Just over two decades in the making, Canada's newest diamond mine is set to officially open Tuesday in the N.W.T. at a ceremony involving Indigenous leaders, mining and territorial officials.
The Gahcho Kué mine, located on the tundra about 280 kilometres northeast of Yellowknife, is estimated to be one of the 10 biggest diamond mines in the world.
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The mine is poised "to help our people move out of that last rung on society's ladder," said Bill Enge, head of the North Slave Metis Alliance, one of six Indigenous groups who have signed confidential impact and benefits agreements related to Gahcho Kué.
The remote mine is co-owned by De Beers Canada (51 per cent) and Mountain Province Diamonds (49 per cent).
"It's a very significant development in the Northwest Territories," Enge said.
"De Beers and Mountain Province [Diamonds] have forged ahead with the construction of this mine — a billion dollar mine — in light of the terrible downturn in the mining industry across the world."
Billions into the Canadian economy
De Beers predicts that over the mine's expected 12-year life span, Gahcho Kué will inject about $6.7 billion into the Canadian economy, with a significant portion of that landing in the N.W.T.
The company says it has already invested about $1 billion in developing the mine, with about $440 million going directly into the N.W.T. economy. Another $4 million has been paid to the six aboriginal groups that signed impact and benefits agreements.
The company expects the mine will employ 530 workers during operation, some of whom will work at the site in two-week cycles.
Commercial-level production is not expected until the first quarter of 2017.
De Beers says an estimated 4.5 million carats will be mined annually, making it the largest mine — in terms of mined carats — likely to come into operation in the next five years or more, according to the company.
'An ace up our sleeves'
Tom Hoefer, executive director of the N.W.T. and Nunavut Chamber of Mines, says the new mine is good news for the territory.
"I think it's significant, since we lost two mines [in the N.W.T.] last year," he said, referring to De Beers' Snap Lake diamond mine and North American Tungsten's Cantung mine, on the N.W.T./Yukon border.
"Thankfully we had an ace up our sleeves ... it will be a great contributor back," Hoefer said, while admitting that it's not yet clear whether Gahcho Kué will provide enough jobs to offset those lost at the other mines.
As of August 2016, 45 per cent of De Beers' employees at Gahcho Kué were N.W.T residents. A socio-economic agreement signed between the territorial government and De Beers in 2013 aimed at achieving a 55 per cent N.W.T. workforce at the mine, including De Beers employees and those employed by contractors during operation.
For Garry Bailey, president of the N.W.T. Metis Nation — another signatory of the impact and benefits agreements — the mine couldn't come at a better time for his 2,500 members. He cites low employment rates in his community of Fort Resolution.
"We have to make sure... we have something to bring home to the people," he said.
The agreement with De Beers says his members will get priority hiring, though there's no set quota. Bailey says right now he knows of only two members working at Gahcho Kué, but he's optimistic that will change with the mine in operation.
"We've got plumbers, trucking companies, a lot of heavy equipment actually, some carpenters, electricians. We have a lot of people who have been trained in college and just waiting to go," he said.
Bill Enge of the North Slave Metis Alliance says he's still waiting to confirm how many of his members will end up working at Gahcho Kué. He hopes the new mine will lead to more advanced opportunities for Indigenous people in the territory.
"Most of the aboriginal people are clustered in the entry level or the blue-collar worker jobs. We're looking for breakthroughs into the white-collar sector of the mining business."