De Beers puts road application on hold after consulting Indigenous groups

De Beers has put an application it filed to reroute a portion of the Gahcho Kue winter road on hold, following YKDFN concerns about the route going through a historically, culturally and spiritually significant place.

Decision 'highlights the importance of community engagement,' says Yellowknives Dene First Nation

The proposed re-routing of the winter road to Gahcho Kue, connected to the pictured Tibitt-Contwoyto, has been put on hold. A De Beers spokesperson said the decision 'was made after a review of comments heard through consultation with our Indigenous partners.' (Courtesy Tibbit to Contwoyto Winter Road Joint Venture)

De Beers is putting the application it filed last month to reroute the winter road leading to its Gahcho Kué diamond mine from MacKay Lake on hold as it consults more thoroughly with Indigenous communities, including the Yellowknives Dene First Nation.

The proposed route would have gone over Lake of the Enemy, a historic, culturally and spiritually significant area for the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. 

According to De Beers, the route would shorten the overall distance by 53 kilometres, reduce environmental risk, and bring down the cost of transportation.

A map of the alternative southern proposed alignment (in yellow), and the existing northern route (in green). The Tibbitt-Contwoyto winter road is in blue, along Mackay Lake. (Obtained from the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board public registry, in a document prepared by De Beers group)

However, according to YKDFN, elders and knowledge holders were unable to contribute to an archaeological study that led to the proposed route.

Sarah Gillis, the director of environment at YKDFN, said that without contribution from elders and knowledge holders, "we cannot acknowledge the proponent's yet to be published report as meaningful work."

In a written statement to CBC, De Beers spokesperson Terry Kruger said the decision to put the application on hold "was made after a review of comments heard through consultation with our Indigenous partners."

"De Beers Group deeply values its relationships with Indigenous communities and takes the commitment to undertake thorough, complete and meaningful consultation extremely seriously," he wrote. 

'Mutually acceptable new route'

As first reported by Cabin Radio, the proposed route filed to the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water board would cross Lake of the Enemy before reconnecting with the existing northern alignment at Reid Lake. 

Although YKDFN elders and knowledge holders oppose the route that would cross Lake of the Enemy, Gillis says they hope to "work with the proponents to find a mutually acceptable new route that's shorter and maybe easier for both parties."

Sarah Gillis, director of environment at Yellowknives Dene First Nation, says the decision to put the project on hold 'highlights the importance of community engagement from the beginning of the process.' (Submitted by Sarah Gillis)

Gillis said the route should be informed by YKDFN land users and knowledge holders, which will use YKDFN traditional trails to help meet the objectives of the Gahcho Kué mine.

Gillis said that they were pleased De Beers listened to their concerns. 

"It highlights the importance of community engagement," along with involving YKDFN from the beginning of the process, rather than having a predetermined plan, said Gillis. 

Consultation timeline was "unreasonable"

Gillis told CBC that on Aug. 11, 2020, YKDFN was approached by a representative of the Gahcho Kué diamond mine who told them an archaeological study would be conducted from Aug. 25 to 29. 

If YKDFN membership wanted to participate in the study, they would have to begin isolating two weeks prior, which would have been the same day, Aug. 11th. 

YKDFN said that the timeline was "unreasonable" and did not allow adequate time for it to arrange a member to participate. 

"This has been a common practice during the global pandemic. Regulatory proceedings should not be moving forward during COVID-19 as there is no way to meaningfully engage with communities," said Gillis. 

Third time route has been proposed

According to Gillis, this was the third time that YKDFN was approached for permission to use the route which crosses over Lake of the Enemy. 

In 1999, a subsidiary of De Beers, Monopros, was advised by elders to avoid the Lake of Enemy route during an engagement meeting. 

They were shown a "detour using YKDFN traditional trails to access the mine" which is "now the current winter road to the GK [Gahcho Kue] mine," said Gillis. 

Several years later, in 2007 and 2008, YKDFN was approached again to "re-introduce the proposed route over Lake of the Enemy and to discuss community engagement approaches."

"At that time, chiefs remained in firm opposition of the project," said Gillis. 

Last month, on Nov. 23, the YKDFN department of environment met with elders, chiefs and council to consider the same route. 

"Elders remain in opposition due to the history and cultural importance of the area," said Gillis.


Hannah Paulson


Hannah Paulson is a reporter from the Northwest Territories. She grew up in Gameti, Yellowknife, and Liidlii Kue.