In the remote reaches of northern Ontario, a diamond mine threatens to destroy a fragile wilderness and part of the largest pristine wetland left on Earth.
by Chris Nuttall-Smith
The old man knows the river’s secrets, and he tells them, slowly, as he pilots his motorized canoe upstream. Far upriver is where Attawapiskat’s fishermen go each spring to catch fat pike once the ice is gone. Closer still is where you find limestone fossils, thousands of them from when the land was still a sea. Here is where he used to take geologists each summer to collect rock samples, starting in the 1960s, when he was a young man. And here, he says, is where one of the geologists found the kimberlite rock with its suggestion of diamonds inside.
As he threads the canoe west along the Attawapiskat River, an osprey and a blue-winged teal fly over us.We pass four massive seals that have swum upriver from the western shore of James Bay.We motor past tiny bays and eddies that have not changed in thousands of years, and through canyons of black spruce and tamarack growing in rich, narrow bands along the shore. The old man’s 12-yearold grandson,Tony, is with us, too. He yells, “mishe, mikeso!”– bald eagle! – as one of the massive birds glides out of a tree. A moment later, a chopper, as if the eagle’s distant twin, buzzes past, ferrying another payload of supplies up to the mine site. The payload swings from a cable extended beneath the aircraft.
The old man’s name is Gabriel Fireman. At 63, he is considered one of the Attawapiskat band’s elders. He guided the geologists for years, eventually getting a prospecting licence so he could lay claims on behalf of the exploration firms. In the late 1980s, he worked the night shift on a drill used to pull core samples from deep inside the earth.Years of labour in this subarctic environment have exacted their toll. Fireman looks more beaten than weathered.
His thick black hair has begun to grey and his smile is a sea of barren gums. He walks with a slight limp, as well – four years ago he lost his left foot to diabetes.
As we come to a bend in the river, Fireman slows the canoe. He nods to a point where he and Attawapiskat’s fishermen pull a net across the water every fall. He says they can catch as many as a thousand whitefish in a single day. “Who’s going to give us the compensation when the river is spoiled for all our fish?” he asks. Three years from now, De Beers Canada’s Victor diamond mine, situated just upriver from the village of Attawapiskat, will open for business. Fireman, like many of the people from his village, fears the unprecedented changes that the mine is going to bring to his community and to his people’s land.
The old man pauses a moment, quiet. Then he throttles the engine and the canoe pushes farther upriver under a lead grey sky.
No one has ever mined here before. The Attawapiskat River has never been dammed. Its shores have never been commercially logged. The same is true for the entire James Bay lowland through which the Attawapiskat River runs. Together with the Hudson Bay lowland, the area drains half of Canada’s largest rivers; it is five times larger than the Amazon’s floodplain forest and twice the size of South America’s Pantanal. The area is home to threatened woodland caribou and to eastern wolves, wolverines, black bears, polar bears and abundant fish and bird populations. It is the largest continuous wetland left on earth – for now.
John Riley, chief science officer for the Nature Conservancy of Canada, spent 10 summers in the Hudson Bay lowlands in the 1970s and eighties, often with Fireman as his guide. Riley authored a book about the region’s flora. The best part of the river, Riley says, is almost exactly where De Beers plans to put its mine. “If that section of river was in southern Ontario, everybody would know it and everybody would revere it,” he says. “The fossils there are falling out of the cliffs, and they’ve still got mother of pearl on them.” The area is famous among geologists for its concentration of karst limestone features and bioherms – fossilized coral reefs – left behind by ancient oceans.
Geologists began surveying here as early as the 1880s, but the diamond rush did not begin in earnest until 1962.That year, survey teams canoeing through the area found traces of kimberlite, the rock that hosts diamonds, on the Attawapiskat River. The following year, they found a tiny diamond in a stream nearby. Geologists came and went for the next 25 years, filling thousands upon thousands of plastic bags with rock and sediment samples that were carefully labelled and sent back south to their labs. Then, in 1988, a De Beers geologist discovered what is now known as the Victor kimberlite pipe.
The mine site is located 90 kilometres upstream from the village of Attawapiskat, where Gabriel and Tony Fireman and some 1,600 Attawapiskat Cree live. Already the site is full of workers and machinery. By the time the mine opens, the site will also contain an ore processing plant, a diesel fuel tank farm, an ammonium nitrate storage warehouse, emergency generators, electrical transformers and substations, three rock quarries, a camp for employees, perimeter roads and an all-weather airstrip. At all three quarries, limestone will be blasted from the bioherms, the fossilized coral reefs. The mining operation will extract enough muskeg and rock from the ground that the resulting stockpiles will cover approximately 350 hectares of land – an area nearly as big as 300 football fields.
But the most impressive feature of the site will be its open pit, which will descend 200 metres into the ground and will span a kilometre from side to side. The pit will be a marvel of modern engineering. According to Lise-Aurore Lapalme, a senior policy advisor with Natural Resources Canada, the engineers who designed the mine for De Beers will attempt to do something that – as far as anybody knows – has never been done before. “You’re basically digging a hole in water,” explains Lapalme, who coordinated the federal government review of the environmental assessment for the Victor project. “How do you do that and keep the pit dry? How do you dig the hole, keep the pit dry and ensure that in keeping the pit dry… you are not creating [negative] environmental impacts?”