Patrick Adzin could quickly put it all in perspective -- if only he didn't have a mouthful of nails.
The 41-year-old father of two is working on the second of 10 beaver pelts he has recently taken from area waters. It has been a good hunt, if saddened by the news that one of the young men of this Dogrib village 100 kilometres northwest of Yellowknife capsized on the river and has yet to be found. The waters are high: good for beaver sighting, bad for canoes.
Mr. Adzin has skinned the beaver. His mother-in-law, Elisabeth Chocolate, has carefully scraped the fat from the pelts with a traditional tool fashioned from the leg bone of a caribou. They work in a simple, rustic shed, with whitefish drying on makeshift racks and a small fire burning in the converted oil drum.
They speak quietly, in the only language 80-year-old Elisabeth knows, Mr. Adzin mumbling as he holds several nails in his mouth and works steadily, nailing one of the larger pelts to a board where it can stretch and dry and cure before selling. He figures he will clear about $25 a pelt from his work of the past two weeks.
That's $250 and $125 a week.
He laughs: He doesn't need the money.
Two days from now he will catch a plane in Yellowknife bound for the northern barrens where he works as a heavy equipment operator.
Last year, working two weeks in followed by two weeks out, he made $63,000.
Living off the land is now his hobby . . . his golf.
His real work, now, is diamonds.
High in an Air Tindi charter out of Yellowknife, one comes to believe that the Canadian North might be the elusive definition of eternity.
It seems to go on forever, land and water roughly equal, the pattern broken only every so often by larger bodies of water and small mountains. The de Havilland Dash 7 is not flying that high and the day is clear, but never below does the endless crawl of the landscape break as it does to the south. No buildings. No smoke. No roads apart from a rough slash at the end of one lake where the winter road leaves the ice and twists into the hills for a while. No wildlife to be seen. No humans even imagined.
For 300 kilometres north and east the plane is virtually silent, though all 50 seats are taken by workers heading in to the Diavik Diamond Mine for their various shifts -- some four days in, three days out; some two weeks in, two weeks out. They are technicians, truck drivers, engineers, office workers, environmentalists, cooks.
Barry Sanderson, a chef, calls where he is going "home." The Diavik camp is a long way from the original home he left at Fort Resolution (known locally as Fort Rez) on the south shore of Great Slave Lake, a long, long way from the winter camps, the little sawmill and the spare house where he grew up with no running water and no electricity.
"It's like staying in a hotel," he says. "You get your own room, your own bathroom, your own phone, own television -- 100 channels."
Long into the trip, with engines droning and heads lolling, the ground below suddenly, dramatically, changes. It is as if the flight has left one world and entered the airspace of another, a world of Hollywood special effects and impossible plotlines.
The plane circles once over the mining camp that sits on an island in Lac de Gras, a 20-square-kilometre island with a landing strip long enough to handle the huge Russian transport plane that has been bringing in shovelling equipment piece by piece. It is an island with its own water-treatment plant, fuel reservoirs and living accommodations for 750 workers that look, on first glance, like someone has foolishly thrown up a brand-new university residence in the absolute middle of nowhere.
But none of this catches the eye immediately. What astonishes are the two open pits that extend out into the large lake encircled by carefully constructed dikes. It is as if some mighty hand has reached down into the lake and pulled everything inside out, the ore from the two main pits forming a high new escarpment along the island and the two pits themselves sitting like a pair of giant dog dishes, with a small black dot at the bottom and tiny yellow ants methodically creeping up the sides.
Tiny from the air, perhaps, but not when you see that a tall man standing beside one of these yellow 210-tonne Komatsu trucks is barely halfway up its $30,000 tires.
The plane is met by a school bus, the bucking drive across the windswept island slow as all vehicles must make way for the huge trucks that haul ore all day long, every day, two million tonnes a year, the new hill in the distance on its way to being a small mountain.
The key working vehicles are the smaller ones, 90-tonne trucks filled with what appears, to the untrained eye, to be cold mulch for paving.
The black material, however, is kimberlite taken from that centre black dot in each pit. Kimberlite, which takes its name from a famous 19th-century diamond mine at Kimberley in South Africa, is an unusual substance formed by small volcanoes that stirred millions of years ago and worked their way toward the surface, carrying along billion-year-old diamonds as accidental passengers. These particular volcanoes -- three are currently being worked on by Diavik -- are about 55 million years old, infant compared with the 2.5-billion-year-old rock around the site. The one kimberlite pipe, or cylindrical vein, known as A154 South, is considered the richest pipe in the world by value per tonne.
The Diavik operation is about 30 kilometres from the first and largest discovery, the Ekati diamond mine near a camp legendary Kelowna prospector Chuck Fipke nicknamed "Misery" before he made what may one day stand as the greatest mineral discovery in the North.
Mr. Fipke had his curiosity whetted by an abandoned DeBeers exploration camp in the Territories. If the world's most famous diamond company, which began in South Africa in the 19th century, had been poking around in Northern Canada, Mr. Fipke reasoned, it must initially have had some inkling of activity.
DeBeers is famous both for its secrecy and for its remarkable ability to maintain the lure of diamonds over the years. "The genius of DeBeers' marketers," author Matthew Hart wrote in Diamond: A Journey to the Heart of an Obsession, "lies in having forged a link between something people do not need, diamonds, and something they do need, love."
DeBeers looked but did not find. Mr. Fipke took up the trail and did find, eventually joining forces with the giant BHP Billiton to form the first diamond mining operation in the Northwest Territories, with Diavik -- a marriage between subsidiaries of the Aber Diamond Corp. of Toronto and Rio Tinto PLC of London -- becoming the second. Other companies, including DeBeers just over the border into Nunavut, are also working the numerous kimberlite pipes now known to dot the North, often at the bottom of lakes.
That initial 1994 discovery -- totally "unexpected" by the territorial government -- led to a staking rush. Ellen Bielawski, the University of Alberta professor and former northern land-claims negotiator who wrote Rogue Diamonds, a compelling history of the discovery of northern riches on Dene land, says the size of this recent staking activity exceeds that of either the California Gold Rush of 1849 or the Klondike rush of 1897-1898.
In part, the attraction for diamonds from the Canadian North is where they come from, regardless of how difficult they are to find and then to extract. They are not "blood diamonds" mined in rebel-controlled African regions through the forced labour of women and children. Canadian diamonds, with their trademark laser markings of polar bears and maple leaves, have found such an eager international market that the country has quickly risen to become the No. 3 diamond producer in the world.
Diamonds were discovered at the bottom of Lac de Gras in 1995. Diavik built the $1.3-billion camp between 2000 and 2003, sending more than 8,000 truckloads of materials over the winter road -- a tough 15-hour drive from Yellowknife that begins, ironically, at the end of the paved road that was intended to be but the first step in former prime minister John Diefenbaker's 1958 Northern Vision of opening the territories to development.
The Diavik mine is expected to last until around 2020 and will produce, annually, about eight million carats of high-quality, clean diamonds. Prices fluctuate wildly with quality, but at roughly $106 a carat, an answer is quickly provided for the question put to the environmental review panel several years back by a Dene elder: "What do they want those rocks for, anyway?"
The potential haul for the three existing Northwest Territories diamond mines -- BHP's Ekati, Diavik and Snap Lake -- is estimated at $40-billion.
A far cry from the 1916 report on the isolated area that suggested, "The block of territory has no known natural resources of sufficient importance to attract people to the region."The Diavik operation is on a scale that makes sense to ants. Ore and kimberlite are excavated in the pits -- eventually, as the pits continue to narrow, they will have to turn to underground mining -- and hauled up the circling roads for processing. The kimberlite that holds the precious diamonds is dumped into a state-of-the-art plant where a Rube Goldberg-like series of sifters and filters and sorters and conveyor belts and cyclones and even X-ray machines eventually separate the gems from the grit. The rough diamonds, sparking like lighters at a rock show, head off on one final, fully covered conveyor belt that takes them to a separate building so secure visitors are shown only its exterior.
"I liken it to going hunting," says Tom Hoefer, Diavik's manager of external and internal affairs. "When you shoot the moose, that's the easy part. The hard part is getting it out."
Harder even will be getting out when the mine is finished. While diamond mining is relatively clean compared with, say, gold mining, there are vast environmental commitments designed to ensure the operations leave as minimal a footprint as possible on the fragile barrens.
Before the mines were allowed to begin work, they had to commit to a "full and safe closure." Ore must be carefully removed and measures taken to prevent leaching. The dikes that hold back the water that allow for the pit mines must one day be reopened to fill in where the lake once was. Fish habitat must be protected or recreated to federal standards. Roads and runways must be torn up and building material shipped back out.
There are, of course, numerous skeptics who believe erasing such a large footprint is impossible without permanent damage, but the large sign in front of Diavik argues it can, and will, be done: "For centuries, people of the North have used the resources wisely. . . . Diavik is continuing this tradition."
What matters most to the majority of northerners is jobs. The mines, the staking and exploration, the Yellowknife plants that cut and polish the gemstones, the suppliers, the winter-road builders, the air-transport operations and the charters that ferry workers in and out all add up to thousands of jobs that were not available only a decade ago.
"Having work is what it's all about," says Hughie Osmond, who works in the control room overseeing the complicated sorting process. From Port-aux-Basques in Newfoundland, he has moved from a low-paying job in a meat plant to making $100,000 a year. "Nobody," he says, "makes that back home."
As for the development, even with the many environmental concerns that come with mining, Mr. Osmond says. "It's a good thing as far as I'm concerned."
A good thing, too, as far as many northern aboriginals are concerned. The Diavik mine has entered agreement with various neighbours -- the Dogrib Treaty 11 Council, Yellowknife Dene First Nation, the North Slave Métis Alliance, the Kitikmeot Inuit Association and the Lutselk'e Dene Band -- that involves everything from contracting out to training. The commitment is to have 66 per cent of the work force from the North, with 35 per cent aboriginal. Diavik says it now exceeds both commitments and has pumped $233-million into the territorial economy since the mine was constructed, three quarters of that going to northern businesses.
The big money, the billions, goes out, much to the growing concern of Premier Joe Handley and the government of the Northwest Territories. Mr. Handley claims that, since 2004, $286-million in royalties have been paid by the diamond operations to Ottawa, as the mines are on federal Crown land. The Northwest Territories, says Mr. Handley, received "not one cent" in return.
Over the coming two decades, Mr. Handley says, Ottawa will collect $23-billion in taxes and royalties from the companies that are moving in to exploit the territory's rich natural resources, diamonds being relatively small, compared with the potential money involved in oil and gas. No surprise, Mr. Handley is hoping the provincial status promised by former prime minister Paul Martin comes along faster than expected -- something various aboriginal groups will oppose -- and if not, then he wants to be treated as a province and given a proportion of those royalties similar to what Newfoundland and Labrador collects from offshore oil. The priority for him is not so much becoming a province, but keeping a share of the current and coming boom.
Mr. Handley's argument is that the North desperately needs such funding for infrastructure. Global warming, for example, seriously threatens the all-important winter roads -- only one-third of expected truck shipments made it in and out from the Diavik operation last winter -- and permanent roads and bridges are a priority if exploration and development are to continue apace.
Mr. Handley's dream is that before these next two decades are out, the 45,000 residents of the Northwest Territories -- and whatever new arrivals come over that period -- evolve into "the wealthiest jurisdiction in Canada." NWT is currently second to Nunavut in per capita grants under the controversial equalization formula. The Premier says that, given the current economic boil there, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Territories, hopefully as a full province, could become a "have" contributor to equalization, with money flowing from the booming region into the poorer areas of the country just as it does today from wealthy Ontario and Alberta.
Such dreams, however, are far, far off, if not far-fetched.
What matters for the moment, to the people who are already in the Northwest Territories, is that whatever boom comes of all this does not personally pass them by.
Barry Sanderson, the Diavik chef, has been there from the very beginning, cooking for the operation from a time when today's massive and modern camp was but a few trailers and tents on the big island natives call Ek'adi, "Fat Island."
He can recall looking out the cookery trailer and seeing caribou moving. He has seen wolverine and fox. He rarely, if ever, sees any wildlife at all these days. He often wonders how much development will come to this isolated part of the world, and at what cost.
"I don't agree with it," he says, "but it's work."
Back in Behchoko, the tiny Dogrib village along the North Arm of Great Slave Lake, Patrick Adzin nods in agreement.
"I like it better in the bush," he says, as he spits a final nail onto the palm of his free hand.
He lived entirely in the bush until he was 18, hunting and trapping in fall and winter, fishing all summer. The family lived around the Slave River, moving often in a lifestyle that he knows is no longer possible.
Today he has his own cabin on the Slave River, a place where he often heads on his two weeks off from working the Ekati diamond mine just north of where Mr. Sanderson works at Diavik.
He has his home. He supports his own family, his mother-in-law, Elisabeth, and even another Dogrib elder.
He has a truck and a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle. He has a snowmobile. He can afford the gasoline that will take him back, every two weeks, to where he came from.
"I guess for me it's the best of both worlds," he says.
And scoops up another mouthful of nails to begin stretching the next beaver pelt.