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.


Diamonds and squalor up on James Bay

  1. No, they’re not ‘cut out’ of the wealth entirely…..but the people of Attawapiskat don’t have the training to get the good-paying jobs at the mine…..and natives aren’t legally allowed to get a mortgage either.

    • No true Emily, they are trained, by DeBeers:

      ‘…..To build capacity within the community, two training facilities havebeen constructed in the community at a combined cost of almost $2million, where we fly our training team in to conduct regular trainingprograms with community members….’And if you read just above that paragraph, DeBeers has $325 Million in contracts with the community, over the last 5 years.http://www.debeerscanada.com/files_3/pdf_documents/fast_facts_vm_attfn.pdf

      • Ah well, if DeBeers says so, then it must be true eh?

        DeBeers…the global monopoly of blood diamonds, and Botswana
        It would be interesting to know what jobs DeBeers is training a mostly illiterate population in.

        • I’ve been following the Victor Mine story for a while – De Beers appear to be good corporate citizens.
          “Two of the first diamonds produced from De Beers Canada’s Victor mine, in Ontario, now enjoy pride of place in the province’s historical legislative mace, which was presented to Parliament on Tuesday in a special ceremony after undergoing scheduled replating and repair
          Last year, the company agreed to make 10% of the rough diamonds produced at Victor – or around $25-million worth of rough stones a year – available for cutting and polishing in Ontario.”

          • This isn’t Botswana – read your link – it’s called the  Kimberley Process Certification Scheme, set up by the UN to stop abuses.

            EDIT: OE you are off topic – this isn’t about 1980s Botswana government.

          • I read it. You didn’t.

             “Survival International considers it to be a genocide of a tribe that has been living in those lands for tens of thousands of years.[57][58][59] On the grounds that their hunting and gathering has become obsolete and their presence is no longer compatible with preserving wildlife resources, they were persecuted by the government in order to make them leave the reserve. To get rid of them, they have had their water supplies cut off, they have been taxed, fined, beaten, and tortured as per land clearing requests by De Beers.”


          • Oh well then…

        • Emily, when the oil and gas or mining or what ever industry negotiates with the Natives to exploit resources,
          education/training and jobs are part of the deal.

          Just like in James Bay, many of the northern Alberta/BC oil and gas exploration camps are serviced by Native bands.

          • Canada is a huge country, with 500,000 First Nations people.

            But just as we speak of Europeans, but never confuse Danes with Italians, we can’t speak of Natives as if they are all the same.

            Their history, geography, tribe and language separate them.

            Some reserves are in ‘good areas’ for development….some are in lousy areas.

            Some chiefs rip off their own people, and make more money than Harper.  Some chiefs get very little money, and try to work with the situation in order to better things.

            Most reserves don’t have ‘democracy’ in any way we would recognize.

            The land is owned by the feds….individuals don’t have private property.

            They can’t get mortgages, and they can’t borrow to start a business.

            Speak out about anything, and the chief can toss you off the reserve…often with ‘muscle’ to back them up. So then you’re tossed out into the ‘white man’s world’ with no job…and no education or training to get one.  It keeps reserve people quiet.

            The natives who have left reserves often live in slums in a city…because they don’t have the means to better themselves.

            There aren’t any elections…’muscle’ usually does it.  Sometimes the position is even hereditary.  The average native has nothing to say about it.

            Lonely northern reserves….especially if there aren’t any handy needed resources nearby….have nothing.  Some natives make it out of this horrendous situation….most do not.

            No housing, no restaurants, no theatre, no exhibitions, no travelling….and no jobs….no kind of life most Canadians would recognize…..just long dark cold lives….and if they buy a TV and/or computer for some connection to the outside world….people jump on them for wasting money.

            If we went in and built brand new houses….they can’t afford to furnish them, or heat them, or light them….

            And in any case, warm houses sink in the permafrost, and the houses crack and get mould.  Even houses on stilts are sinking.

            Should we move them south…attempt to integrate them?  Well after all this time natives are rightly suspicious about our ‘solutions’. We have experimented before…moving reserves, residential schools etc and they’ve been further disasters.

            This situation has been going on for 3 centuries….so we shouldn’t be surprised it’s degenerated into this. Actually, it’s amazing it’s not worse.

            I find them incredibly patient people in general…by this time most others would have gone feral, and would be sabotaging everything in sight.

        • How can they be iliterate when they get free education from kindergarten to university???

          • Natives have a very high drop-out rate

            When you see the state of their ‘schools’ you understand why.

      • But they only employ 100 band members.  Something doesn’t add up.

  2. Sounds like the Chief is not happy with their deal with De Beers – at approx. 2:30 min. in.
    Yet it seems De Beers has provided much need help – from previous poster
    De Beers Canada is continuing to work with the community throughthe IBA to ensure we maximize the benefits available through• Employment; • Business contracts; and• Training; • Direct financial compensationSince the start of construction, over $325 million in contracts havebeen awarded to solely owned or joint venture companies run bythe community. In 2011, contracts awarded to the community total$51 million.

  3. I have yet to see a commentary or analysis as compelling as this one by briguyhfx: http://www2.macleans.ca/2011/11/30/attawapiskat-math/#comment-376606428

    “The budget expenditures for certain governments I’ve non-randomly picked are:

    Government of Canada expenditures (2011): $276000000000 ($276 billion)
    Government of Ontario expenditures (2011): $124070000000 ($124 billion)
    Government of Toronto expenditures (2010):    $9383000000  ($9.4 billion)

    The population of Toronto proper is 2503281 (2.5 million).  This represents
    a .187 share of Ontario’s population, and a 0.0734 share of Canada’s
    population.  Assuming that tax spending is spread evenly (it’s not, I
    know, but gimme a break, this is a forum post and I have to catch a
    ferry), Toronto’s share of total tax expenditures across all levels of
    government for a single year is $52.8 billion ($23b from Ontario and
    $20b from Canada).  Per capita, that works out to $21117 per person per

    The numbers provided for Attawapiskat are $84,866,755 and
    wilson posts an on-reserve population 2100.  The total expenditures in
    Attawapiskat are therefore $40412 per person OVER 5 YEARS, or $8,082.4
    per person per year.

    As long as we are talking numbers, we should probably compare this community to others. $8000 per year doesn’t compare well to $21000 per year.”

    • So Ontario should cough up some of the 13% in royalty revenue they get from the Victor mine and spend it on some kind of provincial infrastructure – at least that seems to be part of the problem.

      • The ‘under lying’ issue is that  Attawapiskat is built on permafrost.
        As you heat the buildings, you ‘melt’ your foundation.
        Unless the houses are on pilons, they will have to be replaced after a few years due to soggy floors and mold.

        • If that is true i’ll bet you dollars to donuts the band either pointed it out to govt officials and were ignored/overruled or some fly by night contractor assured them it didn’t matter. 

        • It certainly is a challenge – Tuktoyaktuk is the prime example of this.

          This topic is of great interest to me as my father worked for CMHC 40 years ago, so as a kid I heard all his stories about house contruction on reserves.  If he were still around I would have many questions for him.

          • I had a friend who worked for a company contracted to build houses for aboriginals in the north who talked about how much they were ripping off the government.  They were building cheapo houses and charging ridiculous prices – very lucrative.  Mind you, this is 30 years ago – I have no idea if the Feds still do the contracting.

          • I hope it’s Northern BC you’re talking about unless you’d to entertain us with stories of how we almost went bankrupt trying to undercut the aboriginal contractors who had no intention of actually building houses.

          • It wasn’t in B.C. – it was up in this neck of the woods. Where were you bidding ?

          • Attawapiskat.

          • Do tell us more.  I’ve just been tooling around the government website re housing – holy crap what a bureaucratic nightmare. 

          • Too bad they didn’t caught, charged with fraud and go to jail.

          • They weren’t doing anything illegal.  Bureaucrats are lousy at procurement.  Governments
            pay more for things – why not – it’s not their money. 

        • Attawapiskat is boggy, but it’s not built on permafrost.

          • Yeah, it is.

          • Take it from the guy living next door: no, it isn’t.

          • LOL yeah riiiiight.

          • It has permafrost.

          • Hah i wondered if Wilson’s facts were wrong.

    • Don’t forget that in the rest of Canada according to the Canadian Taxpayer’s Assoc. we pay 47% of our income in tax when you count all the taxes.

    • Also, people of Toronto pay Federal taxes, provincial taxes and city taxes.  Indians pay nothing on the reserve.

  4. Point taken JG. But something you might want to address is the question of land claims. I don’t know if that applies in this situation with this band and this mine; but this is a recurrent narrative all over this country,[admittedly i’m only really familar with BC where nothing was signed away – no  treaties]
    Anyone who is remotely clued into aboriginal issues and actually actively listens to FN’s leadership will be aware this is a consistent demand – revenue sharing and acknowledgement of ownership on the part of the crown by First Nations, whose rights are entrenched in the constitution.
    Until we fully acknowledge this fact [ the SCoC has on a number of occasions now -http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Delgamuukw_v._British_Columbia – note how reactionary the original provincial position was. A more academic source for this case is worth a visit, with lots more detail ] we will not see much change. We have to accept that FNs choose to live inside a collective model, and given the remote location of many reserves revenue sharing[ absent any real local tax base] is the best hope to see FNs pull themselves up to a level of their own choosing. Hopefully at which point public subsidies might be greatly reduced. This issue is key for development – jobs at nearby mines and logging or oil fields are great – but this alone wont get the job done.
    I’m not discounting the requirement for accountability – my experience of native budgeting skills both individually and at band coucil level were not encouraging; education levels are still pretty low. But given their tortured history and given our shameful part in it we have to adopt a helpful attitude, not one of judgement and smug condescension. These really are good people.

  5. http://intercontinentalcry.org/attawapiskat-holding-winter-blockade-against-de-beers/

    Have you come across this JG? A veritable goldmine of links there[ the comments should be read too] both pro and con; good and bad; wise and maybe not so wise. There’s even a link to an accusation that Trudeau personally discouraged a mercury posioning paper from being published in ’79. Some of the most damning stuff comes from Shela Fraser’s ’09 reports on the inadequacies of Indian and Northern Affairs Canada[ INAC] some of it quite depressing; some of it shocking.

    Anyone who’s interested should spend some time running through this website.  

  6. So if a corporation gets the rights to take my house away without paying for it, raze it, then sell the parts for a huge profit, I should feel really grateful if they give me a job helping to rip it down?  Pardon me for saying that this a profoundly myopic view of issues in the north and a profoundly ignorant view of First Nation’s history in Canada.

  7. So much for the clean conscience that one pays for when they buy “conflict free diamonds” mined in northern Canada.  

  8. Even with the high cost of supping in the north, This sound like a lot of bad management on both sides. We have great companies like ATCo who can build good soild homes in the south and ship them up by water in the summer. This can be done more cheeply than building on site. They do it all over the world. If you can get good value for the money spent then you will get more home for the people. This program should be started as sone as possible. This is the higest priority, they can do audits and chase the lost money down later. Then give the locals that found not to be corrupt proper finanical management training. Once you remove the politics from it , it is doable, business does every day. 

  9. Seems to me that the company operating the mine, seem to be very good corporate citizens, with regard to the native population.  They are training them, hiring them, and as for mortgages, the native population who live on a reserve, do not qualify for mortgages as their homes belong to them along with the reserve!  So the young lady’s complaint about the mortgages is not true.

  10. Having been a Federal Civil servant for some 35 years and having dealt with numerous native bands most individuals to not understand the significant difficulties in dealing with these bands. Band councils do not in anyway operate on a Democracy system and at every opportunity they throw up continuous road blocks to government(s), NGO’s etc. that try to improve their situation. The present situation in Attawapiskat I’m more than familiar with as I’ve personally had dealings over the years with various band councils at this location. All I ever heard from the councils was wyning about the white man inhibiting their native culture and trying to force his ways on them. We know what we want and are self sufficient, leave us alone, just send MONEY so a few can line their pockets. Responsible governments over the years have spent millions of dollars at this reserve, building water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants, housing, community facilities only to have them fall into complete ruin in quick order. Suggestions that the community be relocated off the river flood plain to a more suitable location nearby was totally UN-acceptable to the band. Some journalists should ask the question why are these housing units in such bad state of repair after only two or three years.

    Native Bands are used to WELFARE SUBSISTENCE LIVING and have not intention of being self sufficient as long as MIGHTY WHITEY supports them. Cutoff the free handouts and they’ll quickly move and integrate into the general population.

    • Careful – you will have all the usual posters calling you names…..
      JMHO the biggest problem is not making the point that there are nearly 640 bands with reserves spread from sea to sea to sea and they are all different.   You have stellar examples like Chief Clarence Louie’s Osoyoos Band to Attawapiskat.   Of course location is a huge factor in in any bands success, yet I live 10 city blocks from one of the wealthiest Squamish reserves in North Vancouver and the political in-fighting that goes on is unblievable.  They collect $$$$ from hotels, shopping centres etc. leasing their land and every man, woman and child gets a cheque every month from the rents.  But our Lions Club gets requests every year for over 300 Christmas baskets for the poor families!
      A good read is “Dances with Dependency – Indigenous Success through Self-Reliance” by Calvin Helin.  He estimates that at least 40% of the reserves are dysfunctional.
      Stories like this make me very angry – how the hell can they treat their own people that way??
      “Three directors of an aboriginal housing association in Edmonton wrote cheques to themselves with public money worth nearly $700,000, court records suggest.
      The directors continued to take money from the association’s operating account even as tenants had their utilities cut off and were forced to cope with backed-up sewers.
      Court records contain dozens of cheques for “travel” drawn from the account of the Amisk Housing Association by prominent native leader Mel Buffalo of Hobbema, along with fellow directors Lawrence Willier and Geordy Saulteaux.”
      My father worked for CMHC for 25 years on the actual planning and design for native housing.  Every few years he got to do a road trip to have a first hand look at finished projects, usually N.B. or northern Ontario along Hwy. 17 or 11.  Most were fine but (I probably still have the photos kicking around) on one reserve near Thunder Bay, 20 two year old homes totally trashed.  Doors were ripped off and burned, windows smashed, appliances thrown out on the ground.   Why??

    • I would be very distressed if I believed you actually were a civil servant. 

      • You should be VERY STRESSED THEN as I’m a retired federal civil servant with 35 years of service.

        Transport Canada over the years has numerous responsibilities to our native communities, ranging from transportation, environmental, communication etc.to name a few and the provisioning of these services. Not all native bands are difficult to deal with, however a significant number of reserves and bands are nothing more than welfare states and cause all levels of government nothing but headaches. Most of us understand that the Federal Government was charged with the “parental duties” for these native people in various treaty agreements and are thus not totally guilt free from what has happened and is presently still happening. However just like parents the government makes and enforces the RULES, and if the dependent child disagrees and does not obey then discipline is appropriate. If natives want self government then they’ll have to show they can operate within the obligations and responsibilities of SELF GOVERNMENT.

        Numerous native bands have excelled at self government, maybe those failing should look within their own establishments to see what makes a successful vs failing native band community.

  11. A community of 1800 people, and 1 employer?  Other than De Beers and the Band office, who else is hiring?  Nobody.  Free education from k-12?  Where is the infrastructure to support this?  Thousands of miles away.  Would you send your kids to another town or city to be schooled?  The feds have an obligation to provide services to First Nations.  That is a fact.  Some of the first international agreements signed by Canada were with First Nations.  The feds are not meeting those agreements and have tried to find a way out ever since signing them.  Do we send in the accountants first when a community declares a humanitarian crisis?  Only if it’s a Reserve.

  12. First Nations – Get your act together and STOP relying on/blaming everyone else. 

    From Mr_thompson (below): Band councils do not in anyway operate on a Democracy system and at every opportunity they throw up continuous road blocks to government(s), NGO’s etc. that try to improve their situation. The present situation in Attawapiskat I’m more than familiar with as I’ve personally had dealings over the years with various band councils at this location. All I ever heard from the councils was wining about the white man inhibiting their native culture and trying to force his ways on them. We know what we want and are self sufficient, leave us alone, just send MONEY so a few can line their pockets.

    I know I’M getting tired of having other nations chastise Canada for how we treat our aboriginal people. For the love of God, put some uncorrupted effort into pulling yourselves up by the bootstraps and improving your lot.  I’ve had to do it for me and my family WHILE paying taxes and the like. Stop blamming others and start managing yourselves properly!

    • What kind of business were you doing with band councils?

Sign in to comment.