In northern British Columbia in the traditional territory of the Tahltan First Nation, Barrick Gold over the course of 15 years extracted 400 tonnes of gold and 5000 tonnes of silver at the Eskay Creek mine, something on the order of $25-billion at today’s valuation. Altogether some $135-million went to salaries and contracts for Tahltan workers.
When Eskay shut down in 2008, the local community of Iskut remained exactly as it was before the mine opened, a community with limited infrastructure and none of the opportunities for both young and old that most Canadians take for granted. There was still no hockey rink, no swimming pool, and no place for elders to gather. There were no trust funds in place to enable students to attend university or seek technical training or that might allow small businesses to secure low-interest loans.
When I met with then-Premier Gordon Campbell I showed him a photograph of a close friend of mine from Iskut. With the permission of the family I shared what had befallen the family in the very years that Barrick operated the mine. One brother hung himself in the basement of his mother’s house. A second drowned, thirty feet from shore. Another died due to medical malpractice in Prince Rupert. A sister died on the streets of Prince George. And my friend’s only daughter was murdered in the town of Terrace. This is not to suggest that Barrick was in any way responsible for these tragedies. It is to say that the presence of industrial mines and high-paying jobs do not necessarily imply healthy and prosperous communities.
Tony Penikett: The short answer is, time will tell. For all time, the most fundamental question about northern development has been who benefits and who pays? In my Yukon youth, we used to joke that, when a mine opened, the ore went to Tokyo, the profits to New York and the taxes to Ottawa. The jobs went to Edmontonians and Vancouverites, while Yukoners got a hole in the ground which, if Ottawa gave its permission, we could use as a municipal dump.
That pattern has changed somewhat. Although it did not benefit as much as it hoped from its diamond mines, the Northwest Territories recently signed a deal with Ottawa to devolve responsibility for lands and mineral resources. That has led to a healthy public debate about creating a ’nest egg’ heritage fund to bank resources revenues for future generations. Nunavut has been far less fortunate. Despite promising devolution talks in September 2008, the federal government has so far engaged in no good-faith jurisdictional negotiations. As a result, Nunavummiut – the residents of the only province or territory with a large indigenous majority – are also the only Canadians who cannot benefit from resource revenues off public lands. While others get the economic benefits, they may only see the environmental damage and social disruption that major developments often bring.
Mary Simon has served as Canada’s first ambassador for circumpolar affairs, as president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and as lead negotiator for the creation of the Arctic Council.
Tony Penikett was NDP premier of Yukon from 1985 to 1992, and the Nunavut’s chief devolution negotiator until 2012.
Wade Davis is an anthropologist, ethnobotanist, explorer, photographer, filmmaker and author of 20 books focusing on remote and endangered cultures. He is a member of the University of British Columbia’s anthropology department.
Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at UBC. He is the author of International Law and the Arctic.
Shelagh Grant is the author of Polar Imperative: A History of Arctic Sovereignty in North America and adjunct professor of Canadian studies at Trent University.
John English is the author of Ice and Water: Politics, Peoples and the Arctic Council. He holds academic positions at the University of Waterloo, the Munk School of Global Affairs and Trinity College at the University of Toronto.
Rob Huebert is associate director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He has written and researched extensively on Arctic policy and defence issues.