First Nations people suffer extreme poverty as corporations plunder traditional land


Despite living just 90km from a massive diamond mine, Jackie Hookimaw Witt has watched poverty tear at the fabric of Attawapiskat, an indigenous community in northern Canada.

The northern Ontario community made international headlines recently, when the chief declared a state of emergency, as many houses lacked heating during frozen winters, and families were left sleeping in storage sheds, shacks or run-down trailers, often with no running water.

“Why are our people living in such extreme poverty when we are so close to this rich mine?” asked Witt, a mining critic born and raised in Attawapiskat. “There is something wrong with this.”

As mining companies around the world reap profits from high commodity prices, people in Attawapiskat are demanding a bigger slice of the pie from the diamonds extracted from their traditional territory.

“Our native politicians are pushing for revenue sharing,” where resource royalties from the Victor diamond mine would go directly to indigenous administrations, known as band councils, rather than straight to the provincial government, Witt told Al Jazeera.

Environmental concerns

Beyond royalties and questions over who should finance development and new homes in Attawapiskat, indigenous people worry that increased mineral extraction is ruining the local environment.

“When we have mining in the area, First Nations that have lived off the land won’t be able to hunt trap or fish anymore,” said Stan Beardy, Grand Chief of Nishnawbe Aski Nation, who represents 49 communities – including Attawapiskat.

“I have major concerns about the local environment,” he told Al Jazeera. “If standards are not high enough, it will destroy me and my people; we have nowhere else to go.”

Ormsby, from the mining company, said that diamond extraction does not hurt local ecosystems. They just dig and then “wash and crush” the stones, he said.

But others are not so sure.

“At the beginning [during the mine’s construction] I had a brother who worked there,” Witt said. “He was digging with big machinery. He was shocked to see how they were using explosives for open pit mining. It hurt him when he saw the land desecrated, it haunted him.”

With natural resource extraction driving Canada’s economy, the federal government is keen to have more big projects such as the De Beers Victor mine.

But some native leaders have warned of increased strife between corporations and indigenous people if a broader agreement on resource royalties is not reached, as frustration boils over, with wealth and poverty sitting side-by-side.

“The settlers have not fulfilled their obligations [signed under treaties with natives],” Chief Beardy said. “They are taking all the benefits derived from the land. As a result, we are extremely poor.”

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