De Beers is scrambling to get supplies into its Victor diamond mine in northern Ontario, after members of the Attawapiskat First Nation blocked access to the mine via the seasonal ice road for much of February.
The company normally has a roughly 45-day window in which to use the ice road to truck in fuel, heavy equipment and supplies for the year. The majority of its shipments have not made it in yet, and Tom Ormsby, De Beers’ director of external and corporate affairs, says the company is running out of time.
“Normally we try and run a 30-day program, 24 hours a day, seven days, non-stop, so we’re really under the gun to try and deliver what’s left of the program because a large majority of it is still not delivered,” he said today.
In a typical season, the road will last until the end of the first week in March, but weather conditions could extend or shorten that timeframe.
Two separate protests by members of the nearby Attawapiskat First Nation, located about 90 km away from the mine, shut the road for all or most of 16 days, on and off, since the first truck of the year delivered supplies to Victor on Feb. 2.
The second set of protesters took down their barricades and left peacefully on Feb. 22, just as police were on their way to enforce an injunction ordering them to clear the road.
The injunction was delivered to the protesters on Feb. 17, but the blockade continued several more days, until the judge extended the injunction for a three-year period and issued specific instructions to police on ending the protest on Feb. 22.
“The injunction’s in place now for three years, so anyone who’s going to block the road at any point in the next three years will be at risk of being arrested and facing whatever criminal charges would be brought forward,” Ormsby says.
The blockade originally began on Feb. 4, with just a few Attawapiskat band members. It ended a few days later on Feb. 7 after talks with De Beers. A fresh protest sprang up just a few days later. The number of demonstrators has varied from a handful to around 16 people and the reasons for the protest have been largely economic, dealing with employment and compensation for traplines affected by the mine.
The judge who granted the injunction found that the concerns of the blockades organizers are individual rather than affecting the community as a whole, Timmins-Ontario based paper The Daily Press reported last week.
These are “individuals with private financial interests, holding a large multinational corporation to ransom,” Judge Robert Riopelle told the court. “It smells of coercion.” Production at Victor, which employs 500 people, began in 2008, three years after an impact benefit agreement was signed with Attawapiskat.
Moreover, some of the protesters concerns are not De Beers’ power to resolve, but rather lie with contractors or the Attawapiskat chief and band council, Ormsby says.
While some of the protesters wanted to reopen that IBA, claiming that it hasn’t benefited all members of the community, Ormsby says that’s not on the table.
“The IBA as a core document is a avery good document and has provided a very solid foundation for the relationship that we have,” he says. “Already, there’s 100 Attawapiskat First Nation band members who work at the mine, there’s been over $350 million in business contracts awarded to Attawapiskat businesses, we’ve built two training centres – these all have their foundation in the IBA.”
The company and the community set up a working group last July to go through the document and find ways to maximize the benefits that are already available under the IBA – finding more ways to deliver training, for example.
The economic impact of the blockade won’t be assessed until the road closes.
Victor produced 700,000 carats of high-value diamonds last year.