It takes two to Tango: DeBeers seeks Attawapiskat consent for new diamond mine

DeBeers Canada says it won't even look at expanding its diamond mining operations near Attawapiskat without the blessing of the community.

Tango deposit could extend operations past 2018 when Victor Mine is expected to shut down

The Ontario government requires De Beers to self-monitor and report on mercury and methylmercury levels found in creeks near the open-pit Victor mine — requirements the company says it has followed. (DeBeers Canada)

DeBeers Canada says it won't even look at expanding its diamond mining operations near Attawapiskat without the blessing of the community.

After nearly a decade in production, the company is running out of diamonds at its Victor Mine in the James Bay lowlands.

DeBeers Canada sees some potential in a nearby deposit called Tango, with some estimates saying it could extend the life of the Attawapiskat operation by several more years. 

But before it does further exploration, chief executive Kim Truter wants the consent of the people of Attawapiskat, even though it's only legally required to consult them.

"We are really trying to partner in a different way with the community, so they genuinely feel involved in the planning and the thinking and the decision making," says Truter.

"It's pointless us actually operating in these first nations areas if we don't have local support."

Rough diamonds from the Victor Mine near Attawapiskat. (DeBeers)

Support has been shaky in the first nation since the signing of the original agreement with DeBeers in 2005. Band officials boycotted and picketed the grand opening of the mine in 2008 and the road into the mine has been blockaded several times, including in 2013.

Recently elected Attawapiskat chief Ignace Gull says many in the community feel shortchanged by the original deal and want things to be different this time.

"They want a fair deal on this Tango. We made a lot of mistakes in the past," says Gull.

He says concerns in the community range from the environmental impact on the Attawapiskat River to how big a cut of the profits the first nation received.

A survey of band members is currently being conducted by the private firm Attawapiskat Enterprises, but Gull says a more fulsome discussion will be needed, perhaps a referendum, like the one held back in 2005 on the original DeBeers deal.

DeBeers is hoping that a decision from the community is just weeks away, but Chief Gull says it will likely take longer.

If there is no deal on Tango, or the exploration doesn't turn up good results, the era of diamond mining on the James Bay Coast will likely fade into history after 2018.