Diamonds and squalor up on James Bay

A frequently mentioned dark irony in the story of deplorable living conditions at Attawapiskat, Ont., is that the Cree community is just 90 km from a De Beers diamond mine. A reasonable, concerned outsider trying to make sense of what’s going on might well wonder how abject squalor can exist so close to such a conspicuous emblem of resource riches.

NDP MP Charlie Angus, who has done more than anyone to highlight the disgraceful state of Attawapiskat’s housing, has bitterly complained that “not a dime of the provincial royalty money” from the De Beers mine “comes back to help the community with infrastructure or development.”

That’s true, as far as it goes—reserve communities don’t collect royalties. But it would be a mistake to imagine that the wealth generated by the so-called Victor Mine, which began production in 2008 as the first diamond mine in Ontario, hasn’t translated into real opportunity for the Cree of the James Bay region.

In fact, of the roughly 500 full-time employees at the mine, just under half self-identify as being from the region’s First Nations communities, and about 100 are from Attawapiskat, according to Tom Ormsby, director of external and corporate affairs for De Beers Canada. (Almost all of the miners work on a fly-in basis, working two weeks at the mine site and then flying out for a two-week break.)

As well, a firm owned by Attawapiskat’s band council, Attawapiskat Resources Inc., has the sole contract to provide catering to the Victor Mine, along with housekeeping and other camp services, such as running the waste water treatment plant and incinerator.

Last year, when the firm got the catering contract, Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, called the deal “an exciting, positive development,” that would not only bring in immediate income and jobs, but also provide training and experience that might lead to other contracts.

It is certainly reasonable to ask if more can’t be done to make sure remote First Nations communities benefit from mining and forestry operations near them. It makes particular sense to pursue strategies to try to squeeze lasting benefits from what are often short-term resource plays—the Victor Mine, for example, is expected to produce diamonds for only a dozen years.

But in the case of Attawapiskat, it’s simply not the case that the housing fiasco, which sparked this latest burst of justified attention to the scandalous state of reserve life, somehow proves that the community has been cut out of the wealth being created 90 km down the winter road.

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