Canada’s Dirty Diamond Trade

Rogue Diamonds: The Rush for Northern Riches on Dene Land
Ellen Bielawski (Douglas & McIntyre)

Rogue Diamonds begins right where it should: on the land. Specifically, the land of the Dene Suline people, near the northeastern part of Great Slave Lake in the Northwest Territories. But it soon shifts to an endless stream of interchangeable hotel meeting rooms, where in 1996 the Dene began negotiating with Broken Hill Proprietary, the company eager to mine diamonds on their land.

Author Ellen Bielawski, a non-Aboriginal negotiator for the Dene community of Lutselk’e, is a fabulous writer. Not only does Bielawski get the big story right – and it is a big story, spanning millions of years of geologic history and hundreds of years of colonial rule and capitalist greed – but she has a novelist’s gift for the telling detail, everything from the layout of the band office to the jokes the negotiators tell at dinner. Bielawski also works in just enough scientific and historical detail, including essential background information on the African diamond, the history of resource extraction in the North, and the 1918 and 1919 flu epidemics that decimated the Dene.

Because the government suddenly gave conditional approval to the mine subject to “significant progress in 60 days” on an environmental assessment, the book eventually adopts a taut timeline format. By Day 57, the story is gripping – and the list of dirty government tricks truly awe-inspiring. Nobody bothered to inform the Dene of the ridiculously tight deadline. Technical terms from the scientific reports were impossible to translate into the Dene language. The mining company used deceptive language to describe the process (draining entire lakes was called “dewatering”) and contradicted its own testimony. The government, in a bid to decrease the financial settlement, argued over band membership numbers and the number of Dene communities involved. The list goes on.

In an affecting epilogue, Bielawski travels to the mine, using ice roads based on ancient Dene trails. What she encounters is frightening and sad: Dene men on the road-flooding crew dressed in thin jackets, their boots encased in ice and their faces burned black with frostbite; roads that cut through caribou migration paths; lax government inspections that permit unregulated mercury discharges; caribou eating lichen covered in toxic mine dust; and no drumming at the annual spiritual gathering – because all the young men are working in the mine, and the mine gives no cultural leave.

Canadian diamonds are marketed as “pure ice,” untainted by the bloodshed and war of the African diamond trade. Rogue Diamonds makes it clear that the claim is spurious and misleading: Canadian diamonds are every bit as nasty as those from Africa.

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