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Canadian Diamonds Not Conflict-Free

Many issues to be addressed, says First Nations leader

By Joan Delaney
Epoch Times Victoria Staff
Dec 15, 2006

(Bruno Vincent/Getty Images)

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An Ontario First Nations group is launching a campaign to persuade Americans not to buy diamonds mined in Canada. The group maintains that because of ongoing aboriginal rights and environmental concerns, many Canadian diamonds come with a hidden cost.

Alvin Fiddler, Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation who represents 49 First Nations communities in northern Ontario, said De Beers Canada plans to develop massive open pit diamond mining projects on their traditional lands without honouring treaty rights or undertaking consultations.

"What we've always said is that under the treaty we do have rights to the land and the resources on that land, and the rights we have need to be respected by both industry and government," Fiddler told The Epoch Times .

The campaign will be aimed largely at the U.S. where annual diamond sales represent almost half of the $55 billion world market.

Fiddler says some of the communities he represents are in a "pretty desperate situation," with an unemployment rate of close to 70 percent, overcrowded homes, poor quality drinking water, the lowest life expectancy in Canada and the highest youth suicide rate in the world.

"There has to be revenue sharing arrangements with First Nations that whatever resources are extracted from our territory, that revenue has to go back to our communities," says Fiddler.

Work started on the Victor mining project, De Beers first diamond mine in Ontario, earlier this year. Set in a pristine region near James Bay that previously had no industrial development, the open pit mine will cover an area of 5,000 hectares. But because of dewateringóthe pumping of water out of the mine pit--a further 260,000 hectares will be impacted, according to Mining Watch Canada.

Several First Nations communities in northern Ontario have called for a moratorium on mineral exploration until there has been proper consultation regarding revenue sharing and environmental impact. Fiddler says there are many communities with outstanding land claims that have yet to be resolved.

The Attawapiskat River near James Bay in Northeastern Ontario. The Victor Diamond Mine, a massive project under construction in the area, may impact the river and the surrounding wilderness. (Courtesy of Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

In the meantime, with mining exploration ongoing in the region, environmental groups are concerned about damage to Canada's vast Boreal Forest, home to a myriad of birds, fish, plant and animal life and one of the few intact forest eco-systems left on earth.

Joan Kuyek, National Coordinator with Mining Watch, says that last April when De Beers carried out exploration on Muskrat Dam First Nations land without permission, the helicopters and drill rigs destroyed the spring goose hunt on which the community depends to feed the elders through the winter.

"The mining companies have been going on Aboriginal land often without permission," says Kuyek. "The very fact that they're there and intruding on traditional territory is creating all sorts of problems for communities that are already stressed."

De Beers says on its website that it was "unfortunate" that their work in the area disrupted the traditional spring goose hunt, but a meeting they had requested with Muskrat Dam was declined and therefore they weren't aware of the hunt. The company states that they go to "great lengths" to meet the needs of local communities within whose lands they operate.

Kuyek says that the Attawapiskat nation, a "small and very fragile" community, agreed to the Victor Mine out of dire financial need. She believes they may not have been aware of some of the wide-ranging environmental impacts the project involves.

The Attawapiskat River near James Bay in Northeastern Ontario. The Victor Diamond Mine, a massive project under construction in the area, may impact the river and the surrounding wilderness. (Courtesy of Nishnawbe Aski Nation)

In a first in the annals of mining, the Victor mine is being constructed on muskeg, which is wet, swampy ground. To keep the mine dry, the water has to be constantly pumped from deep underground where there are various interconnected water systems. Because it's near the sea, the water is salinated. And that salinated water, says Kuyek, will be pumped into the nearby Attawapiskat River.

In 2003, as a result of an increasingly aware consumer and strong criticism from human rights activists regarding so-called blood diamonds fuelling wars in Africa, the diamond industry finally bit the bullet and worked with NGOs and governments to enact the Kimberly Process, a voluntary international system that tracks diamonds.

While the Kimberly Process has been relatively successful, NGOs say that conflict diamonds are still making their way into the stream of legitimate stones. With the recent release of the movie Blood Diamond , set in the civil war in Sierra Leone in the 1990s, diamond retailers and industry officials are preparing for a new wave of consumer scrutiny.

While Canadian diamonds are not in the same realm as blood diamonds, Amnesty International's Tara Scurr says that people who think Canadian diamonds are squeaky clean are often unaware of the human rights and environmental issues involved.

"The draining of lakes and the destruction of habitat is a very serious concern for people in the north and for all of us," says Scurr.

Scurr says there's a "bit of a cowboy attitude" among extraction companies that operate in the north in that they try to get away with limited monitoring and without proper consultations with the Aboriginals.

In recent years there have been Supreme Court rulings which stipulate that First Nations have to be consulted and in some cases have to give their consent before any development occurs on their land. But Fiddler says industry and governments often continue to disregard those rulings.

Although the Victor Mine will move ahead regardless, Fiddler says he hopes that such issues as land claims, revenue sharing, treaty rights and the environment can be addressed before any further major development takes place in the region.

"Both the Province of Ontario and the federal government are saying the north is open for business. We're saying it's notówe need to talk about our rights and our issues first," says Fiddler.


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