Lithium Mining is Next for Dene Lands and Water

Arsenic from gold mining has contaminated Dene lands for almost a century. Remediation is being touted – and lithium mining is next.

Odette Auger

Dene lands and water survived arsenic, lithium mining is next.

Yellowknives Dene people have fished the waters of their traditional territory (known as Chief Drygeese territory), on the north shore of what is now called Great Slave Lake, since time began. Across the water from the Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) communities of Ndilo and Dettah sits the Giant Mine site – now one of the largest stored arsenic sites in the world.

More than six decades after the mine began operating in 1948, some remediation happened between 2013 and 2016. The governments of Canada and the Northwest Territories are touting another round of remediation in public forums – just in time for the arrival of lithium mining in a tributary of three rivers nearby.

Lithium extraction increases greenhouse gases, requires clearcutting, and contaminates water while using 500,000 gallons per ton of lithium. The European Union is currently considering classifying lithium salts as serious reproductive toxins, based on scientific evidence that shows a clear pattern of toxicity to prenatal development and fertility.

On April 19, mining company Li-FT signed a Memorandum of Understanding with YKDFN for a lithium project located 60 kilometers east of Yellowknife, in Chief Drygeese Territory.


Arsenic remediation

For 56 years, the arsenic-emitting Giant gold mine was permitted to operate with the Government of Canada’s knowledge, permission, and support. At first, the arsenic gas released from the arsenopyrite ore roasting process was allowed to disperse freely into the air, and the controls that were later installed failed to prevent toxic concentrations of arsenic from accumulating throughout the surrounding environment (the feds, though aware of this, continued to allow the mine to operate as usual). After the mine closed, 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide dust was stored underground. 

Sign reading "DANGER: KEEP OUT - CONTAMINATED AREA"

Photo: Odette Auger


Today, the Giant Mine still holds the arsenic. At Baker Creek educational walk, across from the mine’s parking lot, the nature walk signage is a little less vivid than the red “contamination site, keep out” emblazoned on the same road. This site was originally an expansive berry patch harvested for innumerable generations. Elder Mary Rose Sundberg of Yellowknives Dene First Nation describes how the area around Giant Mine once was: “Up on the hills and along the creek, there used to be tons and tons of berry patches.” Growing up, she heard Elders describe it as “a blanket of blue.” 

According to the Northwest Territories’ Department of Environment and Climate Change, “Giant Mine’s remediation is expected to take approximately ten years, but the project itself has a defined life of 100 years, with some components that will require operation and maintenance into perpetuity.” As the climate warms, the permafrost currently containing the arsenic is slowly melting – which will lead to the arsenic being exposed, or contaminating groundwater. 

Drygeese remembers dropping food, and “picking it up, wiping it off and eating it. That night I was sick and in the hospital in Yellowknife, and next thing you know, down in Edmonton.” He was four years old, and in and out of hospital for years afterward.

Yellowknives Dene First Nation councillor Bobby Drygeese knows about arsenic in the water and soil, firsthand. “We had a house in Dettah, and the government finally gave us running water, and to do water delivery and sewage take out they built a road to our house from the main road. And the rocks were from somewhere contaminated.” The contractor building the road received free fill from Giant mine, they said. Drygeese remembers dropping food, and “picking it up, wiping it off and eating it. That night I was sick and in the hospital in Yellowknife, and next thing you know, down in Edmonton.” He was four years old, “with lots of pain and suffering. Ended up going in and out of the hospital for years.”


Lithium mining is next 

Drygeese runs a cultural education camp, B. Dene Adventures, on the shores of Akaitcho Bay, “educating about our ways, about who we are, how we live and how we’ve survived.” Drygeese’s vision for the camp was to strengthen youth, “because they’re the strength of the future. We have to teach them as much as we can, and help them to understand who they are and [to] be proud of who we are – to make sure they’re the stewards of the land.”  

Ice fishing

Photo: Odette Auger


Drygeese pulls up his ice fishing nets, after chopping away layers of ice with a tool that belonged to his father. He is pleased to see trout. Since the mine closed, certain fish are starting to return. While teaching about ice fishing techniques, he’s also teaching about mining impacts. “The mines were blasting close to shore, and underground, too. The fish could feel that. For a long time, when the mines were open, we didn’t have trout around here. And Coney, too.” The significance of these fish is illustrated by the original names for these bodies of water. Drygeese explains the Yellowknife River’s original name is Weledeh/Wiilideh. Broken down, “wèleh” refers to the Coney fish specifically, and “deh” means flowing water, or river.

Addressing what may be perceived as a site where no Dene were living when the Giant Mine site went in, Elder Mary Rose Sundberg says, “we had a relationship with the animals and we tried to keep that area as pristine as possible.” The Yellowknives Dene protected “the store,” as Elders still call it today, only visiting it for hunting and gathering purposes. “The Elders, they say all the tribes had made some kind of agreement that this Yellowknife area; no one would build there. So our people never really built anything on those trails in respect of the animals, because they knew that it was a migration route for the moose and the caribou.” 

In January, the Mackenzie Valley Land and Water Board said Li-FT needed to undertake more engagement with “local Indigenous groups” before drilling. Watershed Sentinel has outreached Li-FT to ask about their process, and how they were addressing Indigenous concerns; Li-FT has so far declined to comment. 

Drygeese says he is worried about the lithium mining. He’s seen presentations of the location, where “three tributaries, three waterways … go past.” This winter, the nation was shown ownership packages. To improve their odds, mining corporations were talking to other groups who did not have traditional lands here, says Drygeese. He gives an example of “talking to Métis, who don’t have traditional lands here. They’ve been here since the mine opened. That’s it.”

Money is a big part of the conversation, as Drygeese explains, “almost 50% of NWT’s “gross domestic product is from our territory. I told them to come back in fifty years and we’ll decide then,” says Drygeese. Watershed Sentinel has reached out to YKDFN to learn what were the deciding factors leading to the MOU being signed; they have not yet responded to the media request.

Tipi frame against the dusk sky with trees and moon behind

Photo: Odette Auger


Odette Auger is Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother. As a freelance journalist, Odette’s bylines include Watershed Sentinel, The Resolve, La Converse, The Tyee, Asparagus Magazine, and APTN National News. Odette lives on Klahoose, Homalco, and Tla’amin territories (Cortes Island). You can follow all her stories in one place here.

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