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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 ...

There is no word for diamond in Cree.

“They hear about the diamonds,” said Maryanne Wheesk, a middle-aged grandmother in the remote James Bay community of Attawapiskat, “and they think we're rich.”

I sat down with Ms. Wheesk two years ago, long before Attawapiskat had declared a state of emergency, and long before a housing crisis transformed the mispronounced dot on a map to a mainstay of the national conversation.

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The plight of the inhabitants here is a familiar one among isolated aboriginal communities. They lack access to clean drinking water. They lack adequate shelter. And the persistent questions about economic viability are lost in a haze of mutual recrimination with Ottawa: Complaints about mistreatment by the federal government are met with accusations of fiscal mismanagement and poor governance.

But there is one thing unique to Attawapiskat, something that had – for a time, at least – given residents reason to believe their story would be a different one.

Just upriver from the three-bedroom home that Ms. Wheesk shares with 17 of her family members, and 500 kilometres from the nearest road, lies a deposit of low-grade kimberlite. Although there are few diamonds per ton of ore, the ones that are there are of an incredibly high quality – so high, in fact, that when experts saw the first sampling, they assumed the raw product had already been sorted. It hadn't. An average diamond sells for $80 a carat; Attawapiskat's go for more than $400.

It's why De Beers decided to develop the property and create Ontario's first diamond mine, dubbed Victor. When it began operations in 2008, the South African mining giant estimated it would contribute $6.7-billion to the Ontario economy in its 12-year lifespan. Residents, meanwhile, predicted the nearby mine would bring jobs, training, and the kind of economic permanence that had always eluded them.

But as the past few months have shown, things haven't improved. Some argue the decline has just continued.

“It's been like this for so many years – and it keeps getting worse,” Chief Theresa Spence said on the eve of her visit to Ottawa this week. “We don't have enough finances, and we never did.”

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Band co-manager Clayton Kennedy managed Attawapiskat's finances from 2001 through 2004, and was rehired in July, 2010.

In the five years he was not with the band, he said, things became “a financial nightmare.” He believes the first nation was in over its head.

“It wasn't so much people pocketing money, or flying to Bermuda,” he said. “It was more, too many trips to Timmins and too many workshops.” The band also hired too many staff, even at the risk of running a deficit, he said. This resulted in young, inexperienced workers “occupying positions, even when they were not capable of doing the job.” Attawapiskat has an unemployment rate of more than 60 per cent, and “there was a mentality to hire as many people as possible in order to get money on the table, so people could buy food and get off welfare.”

In January, Mr. Kennedy implemented a new remedial management plan, drastically changing the way business was conducted. Mr. Kennedy has residents paying for rent, water, sewer, garbage and electrical fees, something that was not well managed previously.

But the problems here are deep-rooted, and not easily overcome – particularly when it comes to infrastructure. Many young people, for instance, don't know what it's like to have a normal elementary school. For them, it's six grey portables beside an abandoned lot. Over two decades, more than 150,000 litres of diesel leaked into the substructure of the J.R. Nakogee elementary school without anyone noticing. Rosie Koostachin remembered the smell, a heady mix of burnt tar and gasoline. Now 38, she's anemic, gets migraines, has high blood pressure and consistently irregular pap tests.

When the school was demolished in 2009, Ms. Koostachin's house was covered in a fine layer of grey dust. “We were all sleepy, got headaches, started coughing and had watery eyes.”

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.

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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