A 45-minute drive, three short portages and you’re in Hidden Lake Territorial Park. The first islands are beautiful — overcamped, maybe, but idyllic. If you pass through them into the winding northern portion of the park, a corridor with bays out to the sides and gentle peninsulas, you can sometimes find a bit more room to breathe. At the end of this corridor is a little pinch that signifies the end of the park and the start of the lake proper, home to in-use cabins and historic mine sites. Looking out of the park, through the narrow passage into the big lake, it almost always looks less friendly than the park itself. It’s expansive and less shielded from winds. Every time I’ve been there, whitecaps have rolled by as I’ve watched from the calm of the corridor.
One summer day we set out through the pinch, heading for the north bay and a hiking trail to the Thompson-Lundmark mine at Thompson Lake, which produced more than 70,000 ounces of gold in the 1940s before it exhausted its main ore reserves and shut down in 1949. It took an hour to find the trail – a former winter road – and it was a miserable slog in hot sun through peat marsh, beset by horseflies, to reach the spot. Out of an initial group of eight, only three of us pushed on to the end. We found nothing at the marked site but a shallow, mucky lake. The remnants of the mine, we found out later, had burned down years before.
There were signs of that old activity along the way. Deep treads from the winter road lined a path that was still clear through the bush in some spots. An old, caved-in, wooden cabin sits near where the trailhead should be. The land was peaceful. It seemed like a quaint operation that had all but disappeared, slowly retaken by the land. Nothing like the large-scale disaster left behind by Giant Mine, which closed only a couple decades ago. I didn’t trust the water though and certainly didn’t fill my empty bottle there. Giardia is one thing but ecological remediation is mostly a modern concept. Further research proved that to be a good choice. Thompson-Lundmark is one of dozens of still-contaminated sites left over from historic mining operations in the territory. Many of them still have debris; some have structures that at least serve as warning to land-users wandering through.
These scars, fossils from a bygone era, are inextricably tied to the history of Yellowknife and the territories. While the old mining town has given way to a government city, populated in large degree by artists, outdoorsy folk and progressives, mineral development will still be central to any great increase in population, decrease in cost of living and investment in infrastructure. Throughout the North, there’s been no hint of an industry that could supplant it. Tourism’s doing well right now but global economic shifts can make it as boom-and-bust as mining. A new polytechnic university could have a huge impact on the city, too, as long as it’s executed with ambition and gusto. Alternative industries are by no means a longshot but they aren’t falling into our laps either.
As we paddled back and then drove to town, we weren’t far from mining exploration projects currently in the works. One sits on the bottom shore of Hidden Lake proper, relatively far from the park. Another’s claims envelope almost all the area directly around Yellowknife. More than a few Yellowknifers would be happy to never see prospecting sprees, like those of the past, ever again. But without growth, what will happen to the city?
When Giant was on the brink of closing, things looked grim. For a moment. Then in 1991 Chuck Fipke and his band of prospectors found diamonds – a hard stone with industrial uses that became somehow more lucrative, due in no small part to clever marketing, than gold – and mines were opened by the time Giant went under in 1999. Environmental queasiness aside, we were saved. Will we be saved again when the diamond mines close in the coming years?
“From a historian’s perspective, I understand how important and essential mining has been to the community,” says Ryan Silke, a city historian and guide. “But I also know it is not a reasonable expectation that mining will keep us going forever.” Silke has detailed the city’s mining history, saving stories before they disappear and mapping 100 years of activity in the NWT. “I often wonder what the town will look like without them, after all that we have built. I almost look forward to the peace and quiet,” he says. He’s only slightly kidding.
At last year’s Yellowknife Geoscience Forum, Silke gave a “what if” history of the city. What if gold was never discovered? Or diamonds? What if Yellowknife had never been founded, let alone become a capital city? It brought a lot to mind, he said, about this city that we’ve blasted into the rock. The aesthetic standards, or lack of, that we’ve accepted. Our reliance on one industry that, by its very nature, is here today and gone the next.
To me, it also raises questions about our future. Can anyone imagine a thriving city without another miraculous discovery?
Maybe it’s not time to worry yet. Two golden geese sit just beyond the city proper. But each one tells a different tale – one of promise and one of warning.
The old, haggard goose of warning is the Giant Mine Remediation Project. It’s been said, repeatedly, that this project will have the economic impact of a mine for its duration. It will spend $1 billion in government funding to clean up the mess left behind by Royal Oak Mines Inc. when it went bankrupt in 1999. That mess includes 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust, which is frozen and kept in stasis by thermosyphons so it won’t leach into groundwater, to be managed and monitored in perpetuity.
Giant Mine laid shaky groundwork for any sort of trusting relationship between industry and the public, especially those who care about the land’s integrity. While it’s being cleaned up, at enormous public expense, it remains a toxic threat to the region with which future generations may have to contend.
The goose of promise is still young. TerraX, like many modern resource development companies operating in the North, expends enormous effort to distance itself and its exploration project from the ways of the past. Its Yellowknife City Gold exploration project envelopes 783 square kilometres of claims in the area around the city. It’s just a junior exploration company – if the Yellowknife City Gold project ever becomes a mine, it likely won’t be TerraX at the drills. Despite this, it’s running an outreach effort reminiscent of the big diamond mines – donating, sponsoring events and helping out local organizations like the Yellowknife Ski Club. It’s posted $231 million as a reclamation security, and it caps and revegetates its drill holes. Its real benefit, though, is the reportedly $4-million* winter drilling programs it runs, with much of that spent locally. If this were to one day turn into a mine – and we are not close to that day now – it would likely have a huge impact on the town’s economy. But also the area’s landscape.
Walsh, Vee and Banting lakes fall within its boundaries, as does Prosperous, among other water bodies. Of course, only some of this will show mineral potential, and only some may be mined in the future – and even then, only after extensive consultation with land users and Indigenous governments and scrutiny from the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board. But given the extent, the effects of a mine may be noticeable in ways we don’t expect, and not everyone will be happy.
Lithium has been found at the bottom end of Hidden Lake (far enough from the park that it likely won’t affect weekend paddlers). Rare earths such as neodymium and praseodymium – which are used to create strong magnets necessary for alternative energies – may soon be mined north of the East Arm by Avalon Advanced Materials Inc. at its Nechalacho site. There’s activity. But, to stick with my motif, maybe we can learn from one goose to rear the other and use the golden eggs to pay for the farm.
Mayor Rebecca Alty believes a balance can be struck. “We do have a lot of land around Yellowknife and in the Northwest Territories,” she says. There are 10 territorial parks along the Ingraham Trail and there’s easy access to Great Slave Lake from the city.
“The other thing that’s important,” she adds, “is the regulatory process now versus back in the day, and the diamond mines would be part of this new regulatory process, ensuring that when new diamond mines come on board that they have that closure plan before they even begin construction.”
Beyond maybe a municipal service agreement – things like fire department and ambulance service – what the city would mainly see from something like TerraX’s project going ahead would be indirect, but those indirect benefits would be substantial. With a mine just a short drive away, the population would grow to accommodate the workforce. The tax base would grow. Businesses would spring up to serve both the mine and the growing population.
The Akaitcho Dene First Nations are, as of this writing, on the verge of an agreement-in-principle for their land claim. According to Yellowknives Dene First Nation negotiator Fred Sangris, this agreement – which will open up land in Yellowknife’s boundaries for development and create certainty in land use after decades of piecemeal measures – comes with a catch: Ndilo and Dettah want to share in the economic prosperity of the region and bring their people out of poverty. To do this, of course, we would need to continue having some sort of economic prosperity to share.
As a territory, we can’t afford to house our people. We deliver health services up to a point, but someone in medical emergency might have to make two plane trips before they can receive full care – in Alberta. Many of our people languish in addictions and poverty. We can hardly attract our base needs for medical personnel and less so for much- needed mental health professionals. How do we pay for the things that will make our society better? How do we motivate our children to be educated? How do we give them enough meaning to steer past, of their own volition, the abyss of drugs and alcohol? The answer isn’t just jobs, and it certainly isn’t money either, but these are key pieces of the puzzle.
It’s all so messy, imperfect and existential. This is what we talk about when we talk about economy. It’s not just consumer capitalism or the pillaging of the land for the greed of a few. It’s the exchange and management of resources. We convert much of our waking life and energy into money and convert that into shelter and food. It’s not the only way, but it is today’s way.
Perhaps the population shrinks. Maybe the feds step in and increase payments to the GNWT – really, a humanitarian effort. This is not beyond possibility. Maybe communities outside Yellowknife become self-sustaining, able to feed and house themselves with what’s around them as they did before colonialism; though that is weather- and wildlife- dependent and both are in a precarious state as the climate shifts. Yellowknife will remain an administrative centre but maybe its facilities degrade and disappear and its population dwindles. Perhaps the mining dust that was first kicked up about 100 years ago will settle.
But even that scenario would only be temporary. The world always comes knocking; especially if freshwater becomes scarce elsewhere, as is happening already, and remains clean here. Water is destined to become the world’s most coveted commodity. We’ll have to compromise with the feds, with industry, and with our neighbours who have different visions of the territory’s future and different aspirations for their children. Much of this will boil down to different visions for the land and its resources, and we’ll have to find a way to live together. It’ll come down to how many scars on the land we feel the land can take. If we decide to trust that mining is different than it once was, the future of the industry will be on miners’ honour – they promise remediation, and say it’s budgeted in, and we’ll hopefully see them deliver.
For many of us, the land and water of this place make it a paradise. It has been the Dene’s breadbasket for as long as there have been Dene. But there is, and will be, a push and pull between the land we love and our ability to keep living on it.
All of this may seem a bit far off, but it’s something to start thinking about now.
*The printed version of this story contains an error: TerraX’s winter drilling program has been reported as $4 million, not $4 billion.