Mine leaves Yellowknife legacy of poison

YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T. -- It’s an odd feeling being surrounded by arsenic.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 27/01/2020 (1098 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

YELLOWKNIFE, N.W.T. — It’s an odd feeling being surrounded by arsenic.

Especially when the world around you is so breathtaking.

Beautiful seems a word not strong enough to describe Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. It’s a city full of ice, snow, and dark most of the time (around seven hours of sunlight this time of year) but full of the most incredible landscape, northern lights, and people I’ve ever seen.

Here, rock faces peek around every street corner, spread between swaths of trees interrupted by homes, trailers, and arts and craft stores. Most restaurants draw from the landscape with bison, fish, and berries on every menu. Everywhere you look are postcard images of rivers, islands, ice roads, and art.

Culture and history too. The city is located on Chief Drygeese Territory, traditional home of the Yellowknives Dene alongside the North Slave Métis. Indigenous languages like Dene, Inuktitut and Cree are spoken everywhere, alongside the territory’s eight other official languages.

Everywhere is beauty here.

It’s a world, however, infected with poison.

Yellowknife has always been known for its minerals. The city’s name, in fact, comes from the tools the Yellowknives Dene people created from the region’s copper deposits.

Yellowknife is most known for gold, however. “Discovered” in the 1930s by prospectors, southerners flocked here for decades looking for future and fortune, bringing Canada and colonialism with them.

In 1944, a massive gold deposit was uncovered in the Baker Creek Valley, five kilometres north of Yellowknife. The gold wasn’t easy to obtain, though. It was contained in specks in bedrock, requiring crushing and high-temperature heating to be obtained.

This is how the Giant Mine began in 1948.

For 56 years, the Giant Mine was owned by three private companies and produced over 220,000 kilograms of gold.

In addition, it also produced hundreds of thousands of tonnes of arsenic trioxide – a crystalline by-product that is dust-like and easily becomes airborne.

For the first ten years of the Giant Mine, the Falconbridge company released nearly 7,400 kilograms of arsenic into the atmosphere, covering the landscape in and around Yellowknife.

The government of the Northwest Territories provides a graded map of locations around Yellowknife with recommendations concerning drinking water and activities. Green and yellow markers indicate lakes that are safe for swimming and fishing but it is recommended not to drink untreated water. Orange, red and purple markers indicate locations with elevated Arsenic levels (52 parts per billion and above) where water should not be consumed. Fishing, swimming and harvesting edible plants from the immediate vicinity of these lakes is not recommended. (Government of Northwest Territories)

Residents – and in particular Yellowknives Dene elders – immediately began to notice the death of fish, animal mutations, and the loss of medicines like berries and Labrador tea. Their nation had already had their traditional lands occupied (and later stolen) for gold.

No one believed them about the atmosphere until the sickness began to grow. Arsenic is a poison. When exposed, effects first appear on the skin — gangrene, pigmentation, or keratosis (skin hardening on soles of feet or palms). Eyes may turn red and suffer permanent damage, while breathing it in causes lung cancer.

In 1951, a child died from eating snow. Hundreds more reported other health issues.

In 1958, government officials imposed restrictions and policies on the Giant Mine to control the spread of arsenic. In response, the company began to store most of it, leading to nearly 237,000 tonnes in existing stopes and custom-built containers still sitting on the Giant Mine site.

Still, regardless of these efforts, high amounts of arsenic also escaped into tailing ponds, the soil, and, eventually, nearby lakes and rivers.

For the first ten years of the Giant Mine, the Falconbridge company released nearly 7,400 kilograms of arsenic into the atmosphere, covering the landscape in and around Yellowknife.

Royal Oak Mines (the third owners of the mine) went bankrupt in 1999, the entire Giant Mine site was contaminated, hundred of miles surrounding the area was infected (with some nearby lakes and rivers reporting nearly ten times the safe amount of arsenic) and an environmental disaster was underway.

And no one but taxpayers left to pay for it. (After Royal Oak Mines went into receivership in 1999, the courts transferred Giant Mine to the Government of Canada. The site operated under Miramar Giant Mine Ltd. until 2004.)

The clean-up costs for the site alone are nearly a billion dollars, never mind the costs for the surrounding areas (which is, as yet, incalculable).

Part of the clean-up involves what to do with the quarter of a million tonnes of arsenic in metal containers on the site. After thirteen years of planning, government officials have settled on a solution: to freeze and bury the containers, keeping them cool with technology for an additional $2 million a year.

Meanwhile, rivers and lakes remain unusable, medicines and animals remain unsafe to regularly consume, and residents wait and hope the technology that keeps the poison frozen nearby doesn’t break down one day.

All last week, public hearings were held to discuss the billion-dollar clean-up plan and fulfill requirements to attain permits.

As the people most impacted by the legacies of the Giant Mine, Yellowknives Dene leaders have demanded a role in the clean-up project and compensation for the loss of use of their land.

So far, their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

“Every time we raise our concerns, you guys always change the subject and say, ‘No, that’s not what we’re talking about today,’” Yellowknives Dene elder Alfred Baillargeon stated at the hearings.

Meanwhile, the entire city of Yellowknife remains surrounded by arsenic, and its people consume a little bit in their food, water, and air every day.

This is the cost of choosing gold over life.

Remember these kinds of decisions when Manitoba is offered mining, extraction, and energy projects like this, for the legacies are incalculable.

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.

Map of Arsenic Concentrations Measured in Water Bodies in the Yellowknife Area

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair

Niigaan Sinclair is Anishinaabe and is a columnist at the Winnipeg Free Press.


Updated on Thursday, January 30, 2020 11:00 AM CST: adds minor clarifcation and additional details

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