De Beers eyes expansion to mine project near Attawapiskat

De Beers Canada is looking into the possibility of extending its current Victor Mine project on the James Bay Coast, on traditional land, 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat First Nation.

Attawapiskat band members interested in negotiating a new Impact Benefit Agreement for the Victor Mine Extension Project.

De Beers Canada is looking into the possibility of extending its current Victor Mine project on northern Ontario’s James Bay Coast, on traditional land, 90 kilometres west of Attawapiskat First Nation.

The company officially opened its existing Victor Mine site in mid-2008, after discovering the region’s lucrative kimberlite field more than two decades earlier. It was the province’s first diamond mine.

With an estimated five years remaining on that open pit diamond mine, the company has proposed the Victor Mine Extension Project.

De Beers Canada spokesperson Tom Ormsby (CBC)

The project is in an advanced exploration stage at the moment, meaning a final decision on whether to pursue the extension is still at least 18 months away, said Tom Ormsby, the director of external and corporate affairs at De Beers Canada.

An environmental assessment is currently underway, and core samples will be done to gauge the value of minerals in the ground.

Some community concern

Despite the distant agenda, there’s already a buzz in Attawapiskat surrounding the project, said Ignace Gull, an Attawapiskat band member.

When it comes to developing and negotiating the Victor Mine extension, Gull – who was chief of the First Nation from 1991 until 2001 – says he’d like to see more communication, both from his community and from the company.

"I think De Beers is interested to meet with the community, but I think the community has to make sure that’s done with the membership so they know what’s going on," he said.

De Beers Canada held a community meeting in March to discuss the mine extension plan, and said it wants to maintain communication with band members.

"We know there’s always going to be times when we need to circle back and say ‘let’s go over this piece again, let’s understand the timelines,’" said Ormsby. "But our experience over the last 25 years is that the community has been generally supportive, even though they have other challenges in their lives."

Ormsby said the company wants to determine the feasibility of the extension project, before holding more community consultations.

"The community understands there’s still more work to be done before we can get into deeper conversations, because this may not work, and conversations would then be moot," he said.

Project may require a new Impact Benefit Agreement

An unanswered question right now is whether an extension to the Victor Mine would require new negotiations with Attawapiskat band members.

A photo of the ice road blockade that happened in February of this year.

In recent years there have been complications between Attawapiskat band members and De Beers, concerning the Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) that was negotiated between the two groups for the initial Victor Mine.

In February 2013, a group of band members held an on-and-off blockade that halted travel along the ice road to the mine for nearly three weeks. De Beers eventually got a court injunction to break up that demonstration.

Now, Gull said the First Nation should receive increased revenue for this future project.

"The community has to look at the next IBA and make sure it fills the many needs the community has right now," he said.

A new IBA isn’t required at this point in the project, Ormsby said, and only after the project is deemed economically viable may a new agreement be negotiated.

Victor Mine employs about 100 band members at any one time, and the company says contracts with businesses in the community have exceeded $300 million.

Possibility for new, smaller pit mines

The proposed Victor Mine extension could be the first of many in the region for De Beers.

The company says the kimberlite pipes that run through the diamond fields could carry more mining potential, and if the Victor Mine Extension Project is successful, there are other smaller pit mines that could be opened.

"If it all works out [with the extension project], then we have much more confidence that some of the other pipes in that cluster might be able to follow suit," Ormsby said.