By the time you read this, the Robertson Headframe may have been demolished. And there are at least a few hundred people in Yellowknife whose hearts will have broken as the tower fell to the ground.
The iconic red, white and black structure has been a waypoint for those coming home in bad weather on the big lake: Just aim for the tower and it will bring you home. It’s a symbol, visible from anywhere in or around the city, of Yellowknife’s gold mining history—a history that’s rapidly fading as new arrivals and transients outnumber a small multi-generational population. But its latest owner, Newmont Mining Corp., has no use for it, and no level of government has been hot on taking on the liability, despite the tower itself being offered for free. Walt Humphries, a prospector and newspaper columnist in Yellowknife, has led the charge—and protests—to keep the shaft standing. Sitting in city council chambers with a barbecue lighter (his torch) in one hand and a gardening fork (his pitchfork) in the other, he spoke frankly: “I’m really pissed off over this because it’s the mines that paved the darn streets, with their taxes and the workers at the mines, it’s the mines that built the arenas, and then you guys are dickering over a few hundred thousand dollars to save a headframe that would be a monument to mining—to the people that built this town.” The local newspaper reported that Humphries’ speech was regularly interrupted by applause in the packed chambers. “We are a mining town—we have been, we are now and you better pray to God that we always are because that’s the only economic development in this town.” But this crowd of supporters, with deep roots in the city, is in the minority.
While mining is still the only Northern industry with any potential for serious economic impact, an albatross floats about it. On the opposite side of Yellowknife from Con, Giant Mine’s 15 gargantuan underground arsenic chambers are being frozen in perpetuity at great public expense to prevent arsenic from being carried into Great Slave Lake, a few dozen metres away, by groundwater. Further down the highway, Ptarmigan Mine’s become a playground for paintball and airsoft teams, its headframe providing a rite of passage for teens—climb to the top of the rickety structure and pray the ornery owl that lives inside doesn’t attack you. Old industrial sites dot hiking trails and canoe routes. Perhaps there’s little appetite to save the Robertson Headframe because there are enough monuments, sitting around in toxic disrepair, that it would be impossible to forget this chapter of the city’s recent history: when miners would drive to and from work, make good money and enjoy living in a frontier town, and then their bosses would more often than not take off like lovers in the night when the commodities tanked.
It was the same story in the Yukon and Nunavut. The federal and territorial governments that inherited these defunct mines can’t afford more cleanups, and the public can’t stomach more toxic messes—but on the flipside, no industry in our remote communities can hold a candle to mining. Within all this, somewhere, must be a compromise. And today’s miners are pitching themselves not as the inheritors of their forebears’ legacy, but as forgers of their own, with that compromise at the forefront.
Agnico Eagle Mines Ltd. runs the only operating mine in Nunavut’s Kivalliq region, the Meadowbank gold mine, connected by road to Baker Lake. To the south, its Meliadine gold project, connected by road to Rankin Inlet, has all its approvals and permits in place ahead of a planned opening in 2020. Staff have had to court investors, prove the site’s mineral reserve, all while operating in remote wilderness—but they’ve also had to build a relationship with people who have been burned before.
Rankin Inlet was built around the North Rankin Nickel Mine in the 1950s. Inuit from all around the Kivalliq Region—the western coast of Hudson Bay—freely gave up their nomadic life to settle in the area and make a living in the wage economy. According to PhD candidate Tara Cater, in a study on the socio-economic impacts of mining in the Rankin Inlet area, the 1950s were a time of crisis in the Kivalliq: the winters were harsh, the fish runs were low, and the caribou appeared to be in decline. But Rankin Inlet only offered miners and their families five years of stability before it closed in 1962, leaving newly settled Inuit families without any industry—and with a landscape of environmental hazards. Tailings, the material left over once the resource had been extracted and processed, were scattered around town. Contaminated water from tailings ponds made it to the shoreline and polluted their section of the Hudson Bay coast. You still see giant metal structures left over from the mine in Rankin Inlet today. When Agnico Eagle came to town, Rankin Inlet knew what it wanted to avoid.
“For sure, the people had that in mind,” says Stephane Robert, manager of regulatory affairs for Agnico Eagle. “We had to explain that we put the money aside—it’s very important to have a closure plan from the beginning in order to reassure people.” It’s also now required by law. Mines must submit their plan for closure, budget out what remediation will cost, and then give that money to the government (the level changes depending on the territory) so that, if the company goes belly-up, the bill is still covered. In the case of Meliadine, Robert says Agnico Eagle has set aside $49.5 million, split between Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and the Kivalliq Inuit Association. Regulatory boards have also been set up in all the territories, just within the last couple decades, to approve and reject projects that are deemed to have an environmental cost that would outweigh the monetary gains.
The main goals for remediation of any mine, as set out by the federal government, are the physical stability of the land (able to withstand extreme weather, safe for animals and humans to walk through), chemical stability (nothing should be seeping from the mine that could endanger the public or wildlife) and aesthetics (the land should look like the land again). For Agnico Eagle, the more it can do as it goes, the better. Its dry tailings will be stored in earthen cells. Once one is full, it will be capped and vegetation may even creep back over it as the next cell is started. When the mine is done, the final cell will be capped, the buildings, paths and roads removed and land regraded; the open pit and underground area are cleaned up to a degree that they can be flooded and turned into clean lakes. If all goes to plan, a future hunter passing through would hardly know the mine had ever been there.
But the remediation strategy, built into the very design of a mine, will change depending on the operation, the geology and the environment around it. If you look at the design for the gargantuan Casino copper and gold project in the Yukon, you’ll see plans to set up tracts of wetlands during operation. These marshes aren’t for aesthetics; Casino’s going to pump its wastewater into them, and let the wetland biology take over.
Yukon College’s research and innovation wing is being funded by a conglomerate of five mining companies—Alexco Resources, Capstone Mining Corp., Casino Mining Corp., Selwyn Chihong Mining Ltd., Victoria Gold Corp.—to test out new technologies for mine remediation in the North. One of these is using wetlands to purify wastewater. According to industrial research chair Dr. Amelie Janin, the water is let into the wetland, and then the bacteria, plants and soil play off each other to turn the heavy metals dissolved in the wastewater into insoluble silt that settles harmlessly among the soil of the wetland itself. It’s a natural process; the remediators just facilitate it.
In Alert, at the tip of Ellesmere Island with nothing between it and the North Pole but ice and water, remediators from the National Research Council have been using bacteria to clean up historic diesel spills. With permafrost just a metre below the ground, an oil spill might appear small at the surface, but will have hit the ice and pooled out in all directions for dozens of metres around. Research officer David Juck says the petroleum-eating bacteria were already there. The scientists looked at what the bacteria needed to flourish (nitrogen, phosphorus and oxygen) and then simply added fertilizer, stirred to allow airflow and voila—nature did its thing.
All the planning and innovation is worthless, though, if they’re not put into action. In Nunavut, just four years ago, Shear Diamonds realized it was going broke and flew everyone out of the site within 48 hours. The site was declared abandoned, the reclamation bonds were unpaid, and the Nunavut courts granted the federal government the mine's leftover assets to pay for the cleanup.
Stories like that are the ones that get brought up whenever a new project comes to town, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Con Mine, whose Robertson Shaft has drawn a passionate contingent that would see their taxes go up to keep it around, is an unsung hero. Its end-owners, Newmont, have quietly toiled away since the early 2000s remediating the historic mine—the first gold mine in the NWT.
The modern mining magnate has a chance to change their reputation: When the ore runs out, they can leave behind a costly eyesore that people look back at with regret, or a legacy that most remember so fondly that they don’t want to see it all disappear.