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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 ...

After graduating from Vezina Secondary School in 2009, Christine Kataquapit's daughter planned on continuing her education by taking courses offered by the mine. Her mom was De Beers's newly appointed first-nation liaison. But there were no courses available, except basic first aid. Ms. Kataquapit's daughter also applied to work at Victor, but after four months without a response, she went south. “She's 19, she can't find a job here,” Ms. Kataquapit said.

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De Beers's Attawapiskat office is in an ATCO trailer between the church and the bootlegger's, where a mickey of vodka sells for $130. (The bootlegger's house is known locally as “the palace,” and with its new siding and thermal windows, it's easily one of the nicest spots in town.)

Out of the ATCO trailer, De Beers has been laying the groundwork for expansion. The Victor kimberlite is one of at least 16 diamond-bearing pipes in the Attawapiskat area. Over the past year, the company has been in contact with the Tomagatiks again. This time, De Beers is negotiating with Clara's younger brother, John Tomagatik. “They want to explore in another spot on our land,” Mr. Tomagtik said. “But we don't want to let them explore until we sign a new [impact-benefit agreement]”

The 198-page agreement is a dense read – so dense, in fact, that it has overwhelmed the community's small, rundown band office. There are a dizzying array of commitments: from environmental management committees and joint management committees to employee advisory committees, wildlife management plans, mining monitors and human-resources inventories.

Theresa Hall, who was IBA co-ordinator and later became chief for a term, confessed she hadn't even heard of some of the committees and positions laid out in the document. She wasn't aware, for instance, that her first nation could request government valuation reports showing the mine's production values, access laid out in section 10.11.1. She hadn't seen De Beers's annual environmental reports, and she admitted the IBA co-ordinator position had been empty for years. The agreement even gave the community an opportunity to find a native name for Victor, but chief and council missed the deadline. Keeping up with the IBA is too much, Ms. Hall said. “We can sign the best agreement in the world, but if we don't have the people with the educational requirements, then it's false promises.”

Village activist Greg Shisheesh has been lobbying for a revised IBA for several years. He has collected more than 600 signatures asking De Beers to reopen its agreement with Attawapiskat. His petition has not been answered. “It's not that we don't want De Beers on our land,” he said. “We just want to make sure they're doing their part.” After a pause, he added: “It breaks down at our level. … We don't understand who we're dealing with – we're dealing with a giant that's dealt with aboriginal people all over the world. And our staff is not educated, so we're not able to catch up.”

Mr. Shisheesh, however, acknowledged there have been governance issues in Attawapiskat. And he welcomes the fact that Ottawa recently sent in a third-party manager to oversee the community's operations – a deeply divisive move that has angered many.

“There's no doubt we're in a mess financially,” he said. “We lack training and we lack education. But regardless, we need help cleaning up the financial situation.”

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