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Samuel Metat moves firewood which he sells to residents in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. Prices for firewood range from $150-$200 per cord. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
Samuel Metat moves firewood which he sells to residents in Attawapiskat, Ont., Tuesday November 29, 2011. Prices for firewood range from $150-$200 per cord. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

In Attawapiskat, deep-rooted problems won't disappear in an instant Add to ...

De Beers arrived in Attawapiskat around the same time the village learned its school was contaminated. Promising to bring its Books in Homes campaign to the James Bay communities, and employing the motto “Education is Forever,” the company was an ally in the push for a new facility. The Department of Indian and Northern Affairs gave Attawapiskat the portables, promising a real school within the next two years. And De Beers again petitioned the minister for action in 2009, pledging support in the form of project management and work crews. But the village is still waiting.

Leaders in Attawapiskat firmly believe that the problems are fixable with more help from Ottawa. The federal government has countered that its disbursement – $90-million since 2006 – is fair, and has requested a forensic audit of the community's books.

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Clara Tomagatik didn't mention the clear, hard gems discovered under her family's traditional hunting grounds. Instead, she talked about building wigwams out of pliable young alders for her family to smoke moose meat and dry beaver, martin and muskrat pelts. The wigwams were at a winter camp where Victor mine sits today. Every fall, she would head upriver with her brothers, sisters and her 86-year-old mother, Emelda, until De Beers put up “No Trespassing” signs. Now, the Tomagatik family is prohibited from hunting, trapping, or camping on their traditional lands. Community members can't visit the mine site without a criminal-record check and an escort.

Ms. Tomagatik struggled with English, continually breaking into Cree then catching herself and searching for words. She said De Beers officials met with her family three times, long before the company cut a deal with Attawapiskat. She claimed that the company offered her and her four siblings $10,000 a year while the mine was in operation and that she has the paperwork to prove it. For the first few years, the money materialized. Ms. Tomagatik used it to support her daughter, living down south in Timmins. But several years ago, the payments stopped.

Tom Ormsby, the company's director of corporate affairs, explained that the rules changed when De Beers signed a deal with Attawapiskat to develop the land. Instead of making payments to individual band members, the money goes to chief and council.

“We don't compensate individuals,” said Mr. Ormsby, who began working for De Beers after the meetings with the Tomagatiks took place. “We have no way of knowing people's traditional hunting grounds and things like that. And we don't designate what the money's for, whether it's for the Tomagatiks or anybody. That's for the chief and council to decide.”

Before cutting a deal with Attawapiskat, he said, De Beers made sure it supplied the community with enough money to hire its own advisers. The impact-benefit agreement – which earned Mining Magazine's “Mine of the Year Award” in 2009 – took more than three years to negotiate and covers everything from De Beers' right to override Attawapiskat land claims to what's served at Victor's cafeteria.

“We were not going to sit at the table with our negotiators and the community not have the opportunity to sit at the table with people of equal experience and background,” Mr. Ormsby said. “We have 120 years of diamond-mining experience, and it's unfair to think any community, at the beginning, would have a full and broad grasp of everything we do.”

The mining company gives Attawapiskat about $2-million a year for use of its traditional land. De Beers also says it hires locally and provides various training programs.

Mr. Ormsby noted the mine has about 500 permanent full-time employees, roughly 100 of whom are from Attawapiskat. He also said close to half the workers self-identify as aboriginal.

“Since the start of construction, community-owned or jointly owned businesses have been awarded over $325-million, including $51-million this year alone,” he said in an e-mail last week. “The community owns or jointly owns all the permanent contracts in the Victor mine.”

But there are limits to what these jobs and programs can do in a remote area with chronic unemployment and no other industry.

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