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DeBeers CEO calls for 'next evolution' in relations between industry, Indigenous peoples

Ontario's first diamond mine is celebrating its 10th anniversary, just months before it shuts down. But not everyone agrees on its legacy or that this is truly the end for DeBeers on the James Bay Coast.

Some on the James Bay still believe DeBeers will go ahead with mothballed Tango project

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      Kim Truter called it a "bittersweet" birthday party for Victor Mine.​

      The DeBeers Canada CEO gushed with pride at some moments during the 10th anniversary celebrations for Ontario's first diamond mine on Wednesday, which come as the mine is set to shut down early next year.

      And something else seems to have left a bad taste in his mouth as well.

      Truter says he is proud of the work DeBeers has done with the Mushkegowuk people of the James Bay Coast, with millions of dollars flowing to nearby communities through impact benefit agreements.

      But it's not hard to find someone on the coast who feels those deals were not fair.

      "Perhaps some of the communities felt that everyone would benefit directly and perhaps they haven't seen that," says Truter.

      DeBeers Canada CEO Kim Truter chats with an employee at Victor Mine. (Erik White/CBC)

      He points to the hydro line DeBeers put in, as well as the hundreds of jobs the mine has brought to the region, both with his company and with local contractors.

      Truter says though it might be time for the Canadian mining industry to move to "the next evolution" in its relationship with Indigenous peoples.

      "I can't help wondering whether the formula should be modified and whether we seek to connect people more with the benefits," he says, adding that could include giving First Nations a direct ownership stake in mining projects.

      Leo Metatawabin described his visit to Victor Mine as "an inspection" just two days after he was elected chief of Fort Albany First Nation.

      He agrees that Mushkegowuk people should be getting a bigger cut of the diamond profits, considering the risk the mine poses to the environment.

      Leo Metatawabin is the chief of Fort Albany First Nation. (Erik White/CBC)

      "You have two hands. One for you and one for me and that's the way I think and that's the way it should be. 50-50," Metatawabin says.

      He hopes to help negotiate a better deal for DeBeers' Tango deposit, not too far from the Victor mine infrastructure.

      The company decided last year not to go ahead with Tango and has put the project on the back burner, but Metatawabin wonders if that's a bargaining tactic.

      "Who's going to leave billions of dollars behind? You know? I don't think they're going to go anywhere," he says.

      DeBeers is holding on to the mining rights for Tango, but Truter says leaps forward in mining technology is needed before those diamonds will come out of the ground.

      "What we need is something smaller and more innovative, but you can never say never," he says.

      Carol Achneepineskum of Fort Albany is the superintendent of Indigenous relations for DeBeers Canada. (Erik White/CBC)

      Carol Achneepineskum knows off the top of her head how many people from the James Bay Coast work at Victor Mine.

      It's 140 full-time and an extra 20 during the winter road season.

      She is the superintendent of Indigenous relations for DeBeers Canada and part of her job is to be a "monkey on the back" of the company, making sure it lives up to its commitments in the impact benefit agreements, which includes hiring from Mushkegowuk communities.

      Achneepineskum says she does know Cree people who are hesitant to work for DeBeers and said she herself had reservations since she considers herself a person "of the land."

      ​"I've learned to walk in both worlds," she says. "And yes it is hard sometimes, it is a challenge, like anything else, to get understanding."

      Achneepineskum says the coming closure of the mine has been greeted as good news by its opponents and sad news for those who might have to leave home to continue their careers in the mining industry.

      "Like anywhere else in the world, one group feels 'Oh, they're gone. OK' and there's another group that's like 'Oh, OK. What are we going to do now?" she says.

      About 60 of the some 400 workers at Victor Mine are expected to stay on to execute the mine's closure plan and for long-term environmental monitoring. (Erik White/CBC)

      DeBeers says about 60 workers will stay on at Victor Mine after ore stops coming out of the ground next year.

      For the last decade, 10 per cent of those diamonds have gone to a secret location in Sudbury to be cut by Crossworks manufacturing.

      The Ontario government required that fraction of the diamonds to be processed in the province, a requirement that was criticized by opposition parties as a token gesture.

      "I'm not involved in the politics of the industry. I know one thing: it was a pleasure for us and a good business decision," says Crossworks CEO Yuri Ariel.

      He says with two dozen workers, the Sudbury facility is the largest diamond cutting centre in Canada and he says it might stay open after Victor shuts down.

      About the Author

      Erik White

      journalist

      Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca