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Conn Smythe of Birks examines a polished one. KEVIN VAN PAASSEN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

The Globe and Mail

As the famous promotional jingle goes, good things gro-o-ow in Ontario, but now they may glo-o-ow in the province, too.

At least that's the hope of Ontario's fledgling diamond industry, which currently consists of a single working mine in the northern reaches of the province and a healthy degree of hype.

The latter was in high gear this week when De Beers Canada unveiled the first 131 stones from its Victor Mine near Attawapiskat, a Cree community on the shores of James Bay. The diamonds made their debut at the flagship Birks store on Toronto's tony Bloor Street West on Monday night; 131 is the number of years that Birks has operated in Canada.

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"Worldwide, diamonds are $100 a carat. That's average," said Chantal Lavoie, chief executive officer of De Beers Canada. "But the Victor stones are worth between $400 and $500 a carat. They are definitely something to be recognized."

Indeed, the diamonds are noteworthy for a number of reasons, from the $1-billion that De Beers has invested in developing Victor Mine (including a $100-million impact benefit agreement with the Attawapiskat First Nation) to the stones' startling whiteness as soon as they're extracted (most diamonds are muddy and brown when first mined, Lavoie said) to the fact that at least 10 per cent of the mine's output will also be cut and polished in the province (by Crossworks Manufacturing Ltd. in Sudbury).

"It's the culmination of a dream for a lot of us," Michael Gravelle, Ontario's Minister of Northern Development, Mines and Forestry, said at the Birks party, where government and mining industry officials mingled with VIP guests. "To be at a stage where we have a full sequence of the mining sector here, from exploration to mining to polishing to selling, [is]what we're all excited about."

Last fall, though, claims that the venture would create skilled jobs, including among aboriginal people, met with controversy when it was revealed that all 27 workers at the Sudbury cutting and polishing facility were flown in from Vietnam.

And then there is the environmental question. According to advocates for the environment, projects such as the Victor Mine prompt a host of concerns over pollutants in the air and water, disruption to wildlife and potentially irreparable damage to the area's ecosystem. The fears are exacerbated by the fact that there are plans for much more mining development in the region.

"There are always concerns with large-scale developments, especially in pristine areas," said Kim Poole, a Nelson, B.C.-based wildlife biologist who works as an independent contractor.

Although his experience is limited to diamond exploration in the Northwest Territories, he said it's inevitable that Northern Ontario's environment will be affected in some way. "You can't put a mine like that into an area and expect nothing to happen," he noted. "It's just a question of degree."

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One of the biggest concerns surrounding the Victor Mine is the fact that water had to be drained out of the ground in order for drilling to take place. That can cause serious damage to an ecosystem, said Catharine Grant, a boreal forest campaigner with ForestEthics, an environmental advocacy group.

On the ecological front, De Beers Canada has said numerous times that it is committed to minimizing any potential disruption to the area while promising a safe and healthy environment for local residents. Before any drilling began, the federal government approved a comprehensive environmental assessment of the area in 2005, paving the way for the company to proceed. That same year, the Attawapiskat First Nation voted in favour of approving an agreement with the company.

Regarding the jobs controversy, meanwhile, the marketing director of Vancouver-based Crossworks said at the Birks party that the imported Asian labour represents a skill set Ontario doesn't yet have, but will acquire after some on-on-one mentoring by the Vietnamese. The company, Dylan Dix added, is also grooming future skilled workers in the field by investing in the jewellery and metals programs at Georgian College in Barrie through scholarships and awards.

Questions such as these, though, took a back seat on Monday to the glitter of the unveiling.

Shopper Sandy Stewart said that, apart from "the clarity and the sparkle" of the stones, for which Birks will also create bespoke settings, she was attracted to the fact that the diamonds come from Ontario.

The sentiment was echoed by another shopper named Jay, who had heard about the event on the morning news and rushed to Birks from her home in the city's east end to check it out. "I am so proud to be a Canadian [and]to be from this province," said the retired civil servant, who didn't want her last name used. "Having one of these diamonds, the first to come out of this soil, is an opportunity I just didn't want to pass up."

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With a report from Carly Weeks

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