Attawapiskat unrest continues, despite De Beers investment

The mining company De Beers is trying to find out more about why a small group of people from Attawapiskat is blocking the road to its diamond mine, 90 kilometres west of the community.

Attawapiskat residents say only a fraction of community benefits from mine's prosperity

Danny Metatawabin (right), spokesman for Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence during her recent hunger strike, is the co-ordinator of the community's Impact Benefit Agreement with diamond miner De Beers. The company operates Victor Mine not far from Attawapiskat. He is pictured here with Manitoba Elder Raymond Robinson in Ottawa last month. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

The mining company De Beers is trying to find out more about why a small group of people from Attawapiskat is blocking the road to its diamond mine, 90 kilometres west of the community.

Up to eight people who say they want Attawapiskat's Impact Benefit Agreement (IBA) with De Beers to be reviewed have been blocking the road to the mine since Monday.

The Victor mine will soon mark five years of production — roughly the halfway point in the projected lifespan of the mine. But the relationship between De Beers and the community is still a work in progress.

More clarity on the issues that divide them may be forthcoming after a public meeting at the community hall in Attawapiskat, which was slated for 5 p.m. Wednesday night.

More money for social programs?

Some Attawapiskat residents say prosperity from the mine has benefited few rather than many.

"For those people that are working, they seem to have money, they can feed their families," said Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, who often comes forward to talk about problems the community faces. "But it's only a certain percentage that are working." 

She said she would like to see more of the money Attawapiskat receives go to social programs.

About 100 of the 500 people who work at Victor mine are Attawapiskat band members.

Danny Metatawabin — the same man who stood with Chief Theresa Spence during her recent hunger strike in Ottawa — is the co-ordinator for the band's IBA with the company.

"It seems that we still have a lot of outstanding issues or unresolved issues stemming from the day the mine operations began up to this day," Metatawabin said.

"There has been a lot of disgruntlement against employee terminations or discrimination issues, racism issues, even the fact that there are certain families that have traditional territories within the boundries or close to the Victor site."

Some of the people involved in the road block were dismissed from their positions at the mine. Their concerns are among several others that are being worked on by a committee that, for the past six months, has been working with with De Beers.

Metatawabin's position was created in 2011 to review the IBA document.

"I am the neutral person here, I'm the IBA co-ordinator," he said. "I'm hoping [the] parties, De Beers Canada, the mine manager along with chief and council can come to the table ... And I am hoping that the blockaders will sit along the table as well and talk about all these issues and come to an understanding."

Metatawabin said a lack of communication is a big problem.

"We don't communicate. That's what I am hoping for, that's what I am asking for that we communicate with each other and that we have that understanding amongst each other from both parties and ensure the safety and make sure everything works out with everybody," he said.  

Strong business growth

De Beers spokesperson Tom Ormsby said it can be trying to hear some of the criticism the company faces.

"The progress I've seen with our partners ... they now, as a community, have this very strong over-arching business entity that is learning how to win contracts," he said.

"Attawapiskat now even has cell service, and none of the other coastal communities have it at the level Attawapiskat has — that's a result of their business growth. So it's frustrating when you see everyone tarred with the same brush."

Various businesses have been created in Attawapiskat to serve the mine as well, including a catering company. De Beers said contracts with businesses in the community have exceeded $300 million over the years.

The company also said it spent a couple of million dollars on a training center that it tacked on to the local high school. The center offers everything from basic adult education to mine-specific training.

And, as a part of the Impact Benefit Agreement signed in 2005, De Beers makes payments to a trust fund that was set up by the First Nation.

New discoveries

Ormsby said there have been challenges — but nothing the company wasn't prepared to take on when it opened the remote mine.

"So we knew that coming in ... we are coming into an area that has a different history than if we had found this mine 10 miles outside of Sudbury or Timmins," he said.

Ormsby said mining could wrap up at the Victor mine as early as 2018. It will then take several years to properly close the mine.

The company has also discovered other possible mine sites, but Ormsby says none have proven economically viable yet. He added any future production would require a fresh impact benefit agreement with Attawapiskat.

Currently De Beers is working with Attawapiskat residents to help renovate some trailers the company donated to the community beleaguered by housing issues.