Albion Monitor /News

Canada Gold Rush Threatens Native Peoples

by Pratap Chatterjee

Hundreds of prospectors racing to remote north

(IPS) MONTREAL -- Much to the dismay of indigenous residents who survive on hunting and fishing, hundreds of prospectors have raced into two remote northern areas of Canada in the last three months in a frantic search for metals ranging from copper to nickel.

The excitement among small miners as well as major mining conglomerates recalls the famous gold rush in California that began in 1849, the great Australian gold rush in New South Wales and Victoria in 1851, and the Klondike gold rush in Canada's Yukon territories in 1896.

"This is Innu and Inuit land. The companies who come here are parties with the governments in stealing land"

The rules of the game have not changed much from the last century: the first person to stake a claim wins the mineral rights to the property for a modest annual fee.

To be eligible, the prospector must mark off an area that measures 400 meters by 400 meters and drive stakes into each corner. But unlike their predecessors who travelled by stage coach and steamer, today's prospectors arrive by helicopter, communicate with their head offices by radio, and carry video cameras to record their claims.

The first major new rush in Canada began two years ago when the Vancouver-based Diamond Fields Resources announced that it had struck the biggest vein of nickel ever discovered, some 10 kilometers from Voisey's Bay in the eastern province of Labrador.

Some 13,000 claims were staked in the area within a week. Estimates of the value of the Diamond Field's property have been as high as $4.5 billion, bringing international attention to the possibility that fabulous wealth might be stored under the tens of thousands of sq. kms of the temperate and boreal regions of Canada.

And like the gold rush of the Yukon territories that brought diphtheria to the Ta-an Kwach-an and other indigenous peoples, the new rushes are expected to have a serious impact on the local communities.

The Voisey Bay area is an important habitat for many species that the Innu and Inuit hunt for food. It is home to the caribou, wolves, small mammals, and migratory birds, including the endangered harlequin duck.

For this reason,the Innu and the Inuit peoples united to oppose the mine in February 1995 in Labrador and issued an eviction notice to Diamond Fields. A hundred local people then proceeded to block access to the exploration sites, provoking a stand-off with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police.

"This is Innu and Inuit land," Tshenish Pasteen, an Innu elder, wrote recently. "The companies who come here are parties with the governments in stealing land."

"The Innu have used the area for countless generations. It has always been an important travel route, and the drilling sites and exploration camp is located in the same vicinity as historic Innu camps and burial sites," he added.

The two tribes are now pressing for an environmental review which they hope will help block the mining.

Many major mining companies have staked claims

The second rush by miners began at precisely nine in the morning of Sep. 17 this year, when prospectors in helicopters, all- terrain vehicles, pickup trucks, and on foot entered a 5,900-sq.- km area of the red and white pine forests of Temagami, Ontario some 400 kms north of Toronto.

The Ontario department of mines brought in provincial police for 24 hours to monitor a first-come-first-served staking rush. One company -- Royal Oak Mines from the United States -- even recruited high-school track sprinters from a nearby town to distribute claims to ensure that they could grab as much land as possible.

Environmental groups in Ontario are mounting protests to prevent the development.

A third rush was sparked off by geologist Serge Perreault who noticed a "rust-colored stain in the ground" when flying over northern Quebec by helicopter.

On August 28, the "stain" was reported to be a vein of nickel, copper, and cobalt. The government imposed an immediate freeze on mining claims.

When the freeze was lifted October 9, hundreds of prospectors flooded the wet, spongy bogland, travelling by helicopter from Lac Bigot some 15 kms away. Some 6,000 claims have been staked in the 800 sq-km area so far.

Many major mining companies, including Inco, Falconbridge, and Noranda of Canada, and Western Mining of Australia have staked claims in the area.

Inco, which now controls the Voisey Bay nickel deposit, brought half-a-dozen helicopters to do aerial surveys from a base camp at Lake Nipisso, five kms from the discovery site.

"This is all like a scene out of a movie," said Perreault. "If this had happened before Voisey's Bay, it would not have had the same impact."

In Quebec, Philomene and George McKenzie, a mother and son from the indigenous Innu community of Sept-Isles, say they will ask the Canadian supreme court to ban prospectors from digging for copper and nickel on their ancestral land.

Indigenous communities in some parts of the province recently agreed to sit down and work out a deal with mining companies. The Cree and Inuit have already struck an agreement with Falconbridge over mining at Ragland in northern Quebec.

The same is true of some of the Dene peoples of Canada's Northwest Territories who have agreed to allow a Canadian subsidiary of Australia's Broken Hill Proprietary (BHP) to mine for diamonds in Lac de Gras, 300 kms northeast of Yellowknife.

But other Dene peoples have opposed the Lac de Gras mine. Dene Chief Darrell Beaulieu of Yellowknife says that government has refused to recognize their land rights.

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Albion Monitor November 10, 1996 (

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