Yellowknives Dene seek benefits agreement from Giant Mine cleanup

The Yellowknives Dene are asking why they’re still being treated like any other stakeholder when it comes to the $1 billion Giant Mine cleanup. 

'We are not just any organization' says Johanne Black

William Lines, Johanne Black and Beth Keats spoke on behalf of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation Thursday at the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board hearings into the Giant Mine cleanup. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

The Yellowknives Dene are asking why they're still being treated like any other stakeholder when it comes to the $1-billion Giant Mine cleanup. 

The project was subject to public hearings by the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board this week. The board is considering whether to issue a 20-year water licence that would allow the Giant Mine cleanup team to move into active remediation.

"One of the things that the Yellowknives Dene are struggling with is a project such as this has such a high dollar value," Johanne Black, the First Nation's director of treaty rights and governance, told the board early in the week. "But when it comes to the Giant Mine Remediation Project, there is not one agreement that exists in terms of their social responsibilities." 

The Yellowknives Dene want to see a benefits agreement that specifically addresses the need to share jobs, training and business opportunities with the First Nation most affected by the mine. They also want to take a leading role in environmental monitoring of the site for the long-term.

Nigit'stil Norbert, Tanya MacIntosh, Mavis Cli-Michaud, Kimberly Fairman and Camilia Zoe-Chocolate make up the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

It's not clear whether the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board will consider a benefits agreement or another arrangement with the Yellowknives Dene as a condition of the water licence. 

However, a lawyer with the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board pointed to an example from 25 years ago when Ron Irwin, as minister of Indian Affairs and Northern Development, ordered resources company BHP to address social licence issues around the Ekati Diamond Mine before a water licence could be issued. 

"That's an issue that crystallized around the water licensing process," said John Donihee. 

Norms to rules

Every operating mine in the N.W.T. has signed a voluntary agreement with an Indigenous group or groups. The new Mineral Resources Act, which passed in September of last year, will make such agreements mandatory for future projects. 

The Giant Mine cleanup is not a mining project, and it's not under the jurisdiction of the N.W.T. government. But Black and others argued that the billion-dollar price tag puts it in the same league. 

"Under the legislation, impact benefit agreements are between private companies," Natalie Plato, deputy director with the Giant Mine Remediation Project, told the CBC. "We're a government so obviously we don't fall into that category."

What are they getting? 

"What we have agreed to do," Plato said, "is we do a contribution agreement with the Yellowknives Dene as well as the North Slave Métis Alliance that contains many of the items that would be in a typical benefits agreement." 

Contribution agreements are also in place for the City of Yellowknife, Alternatives North, and other groups participating in the formal review of the project. 

The cleanup team has funded a BEAHR training program through the Yellowknives Dene's Dechita Naowo program, at a cost of about $150,000 a year. The program, designed to prepare students for environmental field work, recently produced about a dozen graduates.

Plato also points to the project's socio-economic strategy and advisory committee, which includes the Yellowknives Dene as one of several parties at the table. 

But Black said that seat at the table has the effect of "diluting" the Yellowknives' Dene voice. 

"The project's response has been that it is not necessary to have an agreement with an individual organization," Black said. "We are not just any organization."

She said repeatedly that the First Nation is a rights holder, not a stakeholder, a term that several project staff began to use as the hearings rolled on. 

Business opportunities

The cleanup team also points to two efforts to increase Indigenous participation in future contracts. 

The Aboriginal Opportunities Considerations gives contract bidders higher points if they include Indigenous employment, training and subcontracting as part of their bid, thus making them more likely to win the contract. The Procurement Strategy for Aboriginal Business or PSAB is another mechanism. In a PSAB request for proposals, only Indigenous businesses can bid.

'Yellowknives Dene First Nation never got nothing out of this Giant Mine,' said Bobby Drygeese, chair of the Det'on Cho Corporation. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

Bobby Drygeese is the chair of the Yellowknives Dene's Det'on Cho Corporation. He says neither of those guarantee any business, training or jobs go to the Yellowknives Dene, and that it should, particularly when it comes to the cleanup of the First Nation's backyard. 

"Yellowknives Dene First Nation never got nothing out of this Giant Mine," he said. "The cleanup … should be used to help us move on to the future." 

The Det'on Cho Corp. was awarded a majority of Giant Mine job contracts in 2018, including a contract to do security at the mine site.

Drygeese said the work to date was small potatoes, compared with what's to come. 

Waiting for compensation 

The Yellowknives Dene are also expecting an apology and compensation. The remediation team's director, Chris McInnis, assured the land and water board that's coming, but in a separate process. 

Alfred Baillargeon addressed the board in Tlicho. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

That's an old story for Alfred Baillargeon, who addressed the board in Tlicho Thursday. 

"Every time we raise our concerns, you guys always change the subject and say, 'No, that's not what we're talking about today,'" Baillargeon said, through an interpreter. 

His frustration was shared by many Yellowknives Dene. 

'I shouldn't have to come here and beg for compensation,' said Henry Beaulieu. (Sara Minogue/CBC)

"We should be one of the richest First Nations all this time," said Henry Beaulieu, one of many Yellowknives Dene who addressed the board as an individual this week. "I shouldn't have to come here and beg for compensation." 

Beaulieu is one of the recent graduates from the project-sponsored BEAHR training, but he says he's still out of work, and can't afford to go to school elsewhere. 

In response, Plato said more positions should open up, once active remediation begins.


  • The story was updated to clarify Bobby Drygeese's statement about the contracts awarded to Det'on Cho.
    Jan 27, 2020 5:45 PM CT


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified Alfred Baillargeon as Alfred Belangeau.
    Jan 24, 2020 2:25 PM CT