July 25, 2011
As historians, we put a lot of stock in intensive archival research and sometimes oral history interviews. Since 2007 I have been part of a research team trying to understand the environmental and social impacts of mining in northern Canada, pouring through thousands of documents and conducting dozens of interviews with residents of the region. But often the essence of what you are trying to understand about the past jumps out at you in the moment and place where you are standing.
In May 2010 I was perched on the shoreline of Great Slave Lake in Dettah (a small Yellowknives Dene community across the bay from the city of Yellowknife) with Arn Keeling, staring at the former Con Mine’s huge Robertson Shaft headframe (the dominant feature of the skyline) and the facilities further up the bay at the abandoned Giant Mine. “You know,” Arn said to me, “these people really were living in the shadow of the gold mines.” It was only when I stood in that place that I could imagine what it must have been like for the Yellowknives to suddenly hear blasting along the opposite shore, and eventually to watch the big mine developments and the City of Yellowknife take form. As so many of our interviewees told us, nobody consulted the Yellowknives; the mines and the city just grew up as if from nowhere and spread their long shadow over nearby native communities.
Of course, the Giant Mine and the older Con and Negus mines brought changes to the region, many of them dire for the Yellowknives. The mines and the city were located in an area that the Yellowknives regarded as their “bank,” a rich hunting, fishing, and berrying area that was critical for local food production. Not only did the mines occupy this former space but toxic emissions made it dangerous to eat berries or use local water supplies. First Con Mine in the 1930s and then Giant Mine beginning in 1948 began to spew toxic arsenic trioxide dust into the local atmosphere from their roaster stacks. At Giant, the emissions went untreated until 1951, a raw source of pollution that had severe health impacts on humans and animals in the regions. One small child died of arsenic poisoning. An area that had once been a source of subsistence for the Dene had now become a threat; their local landscape and sensory environment (even the smell of the air) were subject to sudden and sometimes catastrophic change due to the introduction of mining to the region.