New Book! Mining and Communities in Northern Canada

The final results booMining Cover 2 jan26 Fink from the Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada project is here! John Sandlos and Arn Keeling have published a edited book, Mining and Communities in Northern Canada: History, Politics, Memory, with University of Calgary Press. Primarily composed of student work from the SSHRC-funded Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada Project, Mining and Communities assembles oral history and archival stories from across the vast breadth of northern Canada, assessing the varied impacts of mining primarily on Aboriginal communities. The book has been released as part of the Canadian history and Environment series edited by Alan MacEachern, and is available as an open access ebook at You can download the whole book, or individual chapters at this site.

In addition to funding from SSHRC for the research, Mining and Communities received generous support from ArcticNet, the Network in Canadian History and Environment, and the Aid to Scholarly Publication Program.

Host a Screening of the Guardians of Eternity

The new documentary, Guardians of Eternity, is now available for screening. You could host a screening at your university campus or another venue in Canada or anywhere else. Directed by YellowknifeSJ Guardians Poster filmmaker France Benoit and produced by Sheba Films, Guardians of Eternity traces the history of arsenic pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine from the perspective of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. The film also asks how we might communicate the long term hazards of arsenic pollution at Giant Mine to future generations. An engaging and visually stunning documentary, Guardians of Eternity is part of a broader SSHRC funded project, Toxic Legacies, that is currently developing public outreach material on the issue of arsenic contamination at Yellowknife. For more on the film, including a trailer and details on hosting a screening, please see For more information please contact John Sandlos at

Designing for the Future at Giant Mine

By Rosanna Nicol (Coordinator, Toxic Legacies Project) and Arn Keeling (MUN Geography)

The week of June 8 we held a number of workshops in Yellowknife and Dettah to get folks thinking creatively about how they would communicate to future generations the dangers at Giant Mine and its management needs. The timing was perfect: the Remediation Team was holding surface remediation options workshops the following week.

Our discussions, intentionally unconstrained by physical and financial realities, were a great way to get the ideas flowing before entering  into a week of considering technical options of surface remediation of the site.

One example of a monument built by youth in Dettah.

One example of a monument built by youth in Dettah.

The workshops were centered around an interactive design activity where participants worked in small groups using an assortment of materials and odds-and-ends to design a monument at the Giant Mine. Minimal instruction was given – rather, it was a safe space for creative experimentation. We held four separate monument-building activities, mostly focussed on youth and one public event in the evening in Yellowknife (which ended up centering around radio interviews with a local journalist). A number of the activities were specific to Yellowknives Dene youth; only the evening workshop in Yellowknife included adults and we joined in as well. It was particularly silly, and quite lovely to see grown adults with extensive knowledge of the site and issues surrounding it translating their ideas into miniature landscape models.

A marker with a mythical worm that eats arsenic trioxide.

A marker with a mythical worm that eats arsenic trioxide.

In all the workshops, and especially in those where participants were previously engaged with the issues (which often comes with a lot of fear and overwhelm what with living next to an extremely contaminated site with no known solution),  the inherent silliness of playing with scrap material coupled with the gravity of the issues made for a kind of absurd, cathartic experience – part of the charm and success of these activities.

Below is a short summary of the workshop structure and some reflections on the results including photos:

The participants were briefly introduced to the situation at Giant Mine, the arsenic containment plan and the possibility of perpetual management requirements. Lessons and ideas from the Waste Isolation Pilot Project relating to nuclear waste were introduced, with a focus on Level 1  and 2 messaging using monuments and “menacing earthworks.”  Participants were given between 20-40 minutes to work on their design and then each group introduced their concept.  In spite of the obvious differences in conceptual engagement with the idea of communicating with the future, some interesting commonalities stood out in these sessions.

  1. Containment: given the arsenic is underground and is forecast to stay there, most builders included some form of containment, backed with a strategy of exclusion. Strategies varied, from deep isolation of the arsenic chambers, to securing the perimeter. Fencing of various types, whether walls, electrified barriers, or moats, aimed to exclude unwary and/or unwanted folks from the site.
    A simple barrier meant to contain the danger at the site. This, couples with leaving the site as it is, would keep people away.

    A simple barrier meant to contain the danger at the site. This, coupled with leaving the site as it is, would keep people away.

    By and large, containment and exclusion went hand in hand, although some presence of humans (in the form of technical personnel) was often incorporated, and some included information centres and messaging outside the perimeter (see point 3 below).  Nobody seemed worried about animals or anything on the site. Some models envisioned facilities for the maintenance of containment (freezing structures, thermosyphons, monitoring stations, etc.). In other words, the key to the site for many was the ensurance of permanent containment of arsenic; the theoretical possibility of containment’s obverse, leakage, was not really addressed.

  1. Surveillance: in addition to containment and exclusion, surveillance was a surprisingly common element of these models–especially amongst young people. Guard towers with domed observation decks, cameras, and other forms of site surveillance (outwardly or inwardly directed) were common.
    Guard towers out in front of an imagined Giant Mine of the future.

    Guard towers out in front of an imagined Giant Mine of the future.

    Not sure what this says about the apparent banality of surveillance and security in our time…. But it seems to indicate a strong feeling that not only is the site dangerous, it is dangerous for people to access the site.

    Another model for a guard tower.

    Another model for a guard tower.

    Some folks (again, especially kids) worried about people getting at or releasing the arsenic (like terrorists). Is this a vision of a Giant (Mine) Panopticon?

  1. Messaging: Without a bit more discussion around envisioning future societies, we think this aspect of the project was underdeveloped.
    Lots of signage in this one! Will future generations be able to read these langauages?

    Lots of signage in this one! Will future generations be able to read these languages?

    People made signs of various kinds, but there were few examples of various “levels” of messaging, the question of language, or the use of symbology (with some exceptions). I guess there were a few examples (using the chess men or little people) of using totemic figures to warn people from the site. Mainly, There were signs–lots of signs, mainly aimed at supporting the mission of containment/exclusion.

    The message is clear: Danger! But will future generations understand?

    The message is clear: Danger! But will future generations understand?

  1. Reclamation/remediation and use: Somewhat related to point 1, there was a range of forecast land use goals envisioned, implicitly or explicitly. One of the Dettah youth focussed on leaving the site “ugly” and unusable (an idea which, incidentally, got some traction with Johanne and others at the remediation workshop).
    Concept of one Dettah Yourth: keep the site ugly so everyone knows something bad has happened here.

    Concept of one Dettah Yourth: keep the site ugly so everyone knows something bad has happened here.

    Partly here the idea is that ugliness would preserve the message of danger while restricting future land uses. Quite fancifully, one elementary school group made their  site a recreation facility, complete with zip line! Most models seemed to track a kind of middle ground on end land use, with contaminated areas not being really used at all but some areas subject to remediation for use to some standard.

    Inviting people in - an interpretive centre designed to inform people how to maintain the Giant Mine Site (and mark the thermosyphon areas)

    Inviting people in – an interpretive centre designed to inform people how to maintain the Giant Mine Site (and mark the thermosyphon areas)

    Certainly, it raises the issue that reclamation and other strategies at the site are ultimately guided by both the issue of waste and contamination as well as that of potential future land uses–something to keep in mind as we work up this material.

All in all, a fun set of activities. Big thanks to Max Liboiron of Memorial University’s Sociology Department for the materials!




Giant Mine Environmental Agreement Signed

On June 17th representatives of Alternatives North, Yellowknives Dene First Nation, City of Yellowknife, North Slave Métis Alliance, Government of Canada and the Government of the Northwest Territories signed a landmark environmental agreement for the Giant Mine Remediation Project. Several years in the making, the agreement provides for an independent oversight body that will review the status of the project and act as an intervenor at public hearings. The agreement also contains for provisions on public reporting and research on how to provide a more permanent solution than the current plan to contain 237,000 tons of underground arsenic in perpetuity.  You can read the media release and see the environmental agreement.

The federal government is proposing to use a system of thermosyphons like these at Giant Mine to freeze and thereby stabilize underground chambers filled with toxic arsenic trioxide. Photo by Arn Keeling

The federal government is proposing to use a system of thermosyphons like these at Giant Mine to freeze and thereby stabilize underground chambers filled with toxic arsenic trioxide. Photo by Arn Keeling

Giant Mine is an abandoned gold mining operation that was active between 1948-2004. The mine was a significant producer of arsenic trioxide dust, which was initially sent up a roaster stack with absolutely no pollution controls. After a Yellowknives Dene child died and several other community members were sickened in 1951, pollution controls did slowly improve (though did not eliminate) the amount of airborne arsenic in the local environment. The two companies that operated Giant Mine (Giant Yellowknife Mines, Ltd. and Royal Oak) stored the arsenic dust collected in pollution control equipment in underground chambers, creating a vexing contamination problem that has become the responsibility of the Canadian government. The government currently plans to freeze the arsenic underground, along with measures to mitigate arsenic on the surface of the old mine. After a recent environmental assessement of the project, the government adopted a shorter term time frame for the frozen block project, hoping to find a more permanent way to remove the threat of arsenic at Giant Mine

Communicating Hazards to Future Generations – New Report

One of the key goals of the Toxic Legacies Project is to work with community groups in Yellowknife on how to communicated the hazard of 237.000 tons of arsenic trioxide frozen under the ground to future generations. To tackle this issue, several team members have read deeply into the work that was done at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant in Carlsbad, New Mexico, where the first U.S. nuclear waste repository is located. Over the past thirty years, WIPP officials have developed proposals for a complex system of signs, symbols, text, and archival repositories to communicated nuclear hazard over 10000 years. As we thought about Giant Mine, we realized that some issues are similar (the original plan was to freeze the arsenic forever) and some were very different (unlike a nuclear waste repository Giant Mine will likely require active maintenance for long periods of time). Also, the ground kept shifting under our feet (not literally, thankfully); the recently completed environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project resulted in a 100 year time frame being adopted (with the hope that new technology will allow for removal of the arsenic threat undeground). Even so, there are still some key issues to consider on transferring knowledge of the site between generations. We hope this report will provide a useful kick-start to discussion of this issue in the City of Yellowknife. You can access the full report or a short two page summary from the links below:

Communicating Danger Full Report 

Communicating Danger Two Page Summary

Yellowknife Research a Success

In early June the Toxic Legacies Team converged on Yellowknife for our first major field research trip. Although things could have gone very badly (lost luggage with crucial camera equipment; 3 team members ill at one point or another), we had a fantastic two weeks of constant activities.


John Sandlos and Arn Keeling spent a lot of time talking with groups and individuals about the issue of communicating with future generations (see a future blog on this) at Giant Mine. We met with Yellowknife mayor Mark Heyck, talked with our partner group Alternatives North, met with a representative of the Giant Mine Remediation Team, and presented to the City of Yellowknife Heritage Committee.

We also hosted a fantastic workshop in Ndilo (with a bus bringing folks from Dettah), introducing the project to the Yellowknives Dene communities and holding a long discussion about how the Yellowknives’ traditional knowledge and stories might be used to communicate the hazard at Giant Mine to future generations.


Mary Rose Sundberg spoke passionately in Weledeh about the importance of oral history, Kevin O’Reilly gave an overview of the perpetual care issues at Giant Mine, Johanne Black talked about her work on Giant with YKDFN Lands and Environment, Arn Keeling summed up the status of our historical mapping work at Giant, while our film crew (France Benoit, Ron Harpelle, and Kelly Saxberg) outlined their work on the “Guardians of Eternity” project.


At all of our meetings, we were impressed with the depth of knowledge and expressions of commitment to the issue of ensuring that the Giant Mine site is commemorated so that does not represent a danger to those in future.

Our film crew was almost constantly at work, conducting interviews and building our stock of footage of the lanscapes surrounding Giant Mine. A highlight was a field trip to Burwash, the first small gold mining operation in Yellowknife (c. 1935) and community, and thus the first site of contact between the Yellowknives Dene and the new northern mining economy. In addition to the crew, the field group included the YKDFN traditional knowledge specialist Randy Freeman, Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Center staffers (local history specialist Ryan Silke and archaeologist Glen McKay), YKDFN member Fred Sangris, and John Sandlos (freed for a day from the archives).


Beneath the bright sun and amid the emerging mosquitos, we surveyed what remains of the old townsite, looked for signs of Yellowknives occupation in the area (which dates back centuries), and talked about the history of the area at the site of the old mining shaft.


As a result of our many discussions, we hope to create a local working group in Yellowknife that will discuss strategies for communicating hazard and the perpetual care requirments at Giant Mine to the near and distant future.

We are moving forward with all projects, so look for more updates in this space in the coming months.



The Ring of Fire Strikes a Familiar Tune

John Sandlos

With the launch of the Ontario Liberal election platform, Premier Kathleen Wynne made it official: a centrepiece of her campaign is a $1billion investment in infrastructure to spur mineral development in the “Ring of Fire” region 500 km northeast of Thunder Bay. With or without a matching federal investment, the provincial Liberals (and the NDP, Andre Horwath suggested in a recent leaders’ debate) would send millions of public dollars north to develop an access highway and spur roads to the region, unlocking vast chromium deposits and other possible mineral plays in copper, zinc, nickel, platinum, vanadium, and gold.

And what’s not to like about the proposal? The Ontario Chamber of Commerce suggested that mining development in the Ring of Fire could generate 5500 jobs and $25 billion in economic activity by 2047. The government’s investment in roads and infrastructure would be amply repaid through $2 billion in taxes and royalties. First Nations in the region have been divided on the question of mining impacts, but Wynne promises them representation on a private–public development corporation that will coordinate the broader project. The additional promise of jobs, training, and local investment is tantalizing for First Nations that are among the least affluent in Ontario. For a provincial economy that has lost thousands of manufacturing jobs in recent years, and for First Nations who sit upon one of the most significant untapped mineral complexes in Canada, development seems a win-win for everyone.

History nevertheless offers a cautionary tale to the unbridled enthusiasm for mineral-led economic and social development in Canada’s remote regions. In an essay published two years ago in the journal Environment and History, Dr. Arn Keeling and I described how in the 1950s very similar boosterish rhetoric was applied to the a vast lead-zinc deposit at Pine Point on the southern shores of Great Slave Lake. In private meetings, at Royal Commission hearings, and in press statements, federal government bureaucrats suggested that development at Pine Point would lift local First Nations out of the moribund fur trade and stake their economic future on modern wage labour. According to the federal government and the mining company Cominco, the only thing needed was public investment in a rail corridor linking northern minerals to southern markets. The railroad, according to public officials, would be a great development project, stimulating mining development throughout the Northwest Territories with immense benefits for local First Nations and the national economy. The federal government ended up spending close to $100 million (about $790 million in today’s dollars) on the Great Slave Lake Railroad project, a spur extension of the Mackenzie highway from Hay River to the mine, and also a dam to provide hydro power for the project.

How successful was the railroad and the mine as a spark for northern development? There is no doubt that the mine, which operated from 1964 to 1988, was a highly profitable operation. But as a stimulant to broader social and economic development in the NWT, the mine and the railroad remained at best a limited success. Neither the government nor the mine developed local training and recruitment programs, while the highway was not extended westward to the Chipewyan and Metis community of Fort Resolution until 1972, severely limiting people’s access to the wage labour opportunities at the mine. Archival documents, oral interviews, and the work of other scholars suggests (Deprez 1973, Macpherson 1978), First Nations participation at the mine was extremely limited. Add in a lack of royalties and other financial benefits for First Nations plus the widespread local feeling that the cleanup of the mine was inadequate, and many people from Fort Resolution (and to an extent the Katloodeeche First Nation reserve near Hay River) believe they were stuck with a large environmental mess while receiving virtually no economic benefits from the mines. The Great Slave Lake Railroad failed to stimulate any other significant mining activity in the region; the spur line between Hay River and Pine Point was pulled out shortly after the mine closed due to low commodity prices in 1988. Although many people (Native and non-Native alike) have suggested that the town of Pine Point was one of the best places they had ever lived (a sentiment expressed in oral interviews we conducted and the Goggles brilliant NFB multi-media project), this too was fleeting as the town was completely demolished after closure. For many Aboriginal people in the South Slave region, the Berger Inquiry’s assessment of Pine Point as a form of mega-development that failed to provide significant economic benefits for the permanent residents of northern Canada holds still rings true across the many years since the mine shut its doors.

History, of course, never repeats itself in exactly the same way. The Ring of Fire does at least seem to hold more long term mineral potential than did the South Slave region. In addition, mining companies today typically sign Impact and Benefit Agreements with northern Native Communities affected by development, providing in some cases guaranteed jobs, financial benefits, and training opportunities (though these agreements are confidential so in many cases analysts lack knowledge of the details).

On the other hand, the case of Pine Point does suggest at least some reason for caution about the boosterish tone coming from Ontario politicians and industry enthusiasts. Public (and other) investments in mining ventures are always inherently risky, and geographically remote projects such as Pine Point and the Ring of Fire are particularly vulnerable to any significant slide in commodity prices, which can leave in their wake idle mines and shuttered communities. Also, our research on Pine Point and other mines suggests that mine labour often does not replace hunting and trapping activities, but often Aboriginal people move between the two economies in accordance with the relative advantages of each and the cultural priorities of individuals and communities. Mine employment is not necessarily a panacea for northern Native people, and First Nations concerns about the impact of mining activity on the hunting and trapping economy in the Ring of Fire should not be dismissed as reflections of “backwardness” in the same way as they were at Pine Point. At the very least, the lack of training and education opportunities at Pine Point offer an important warning to First Nations in the Ring of Fire, who are right to be wary of any rapid development timeframe that may neglect the pressing training, education, social impacts and environmental issues within their communities. The prevailing wisdom seems to be, if you build it–in this case a highway or a railroad rather than a ballpark–then they (the mining companies) will come. But unlike the dreamy world of W.P. Kinsella, simply building it does not necessarily wash away all problems, particularly the social, environmental, or economic problems that First Nations in the Ring of Fire currently face or that may be introduced as a result of mining activity.


Works Cited

Paul Deprez, The Pine Point Mine and the Development of the Area South of Great Slave Lake, (Winnipeg, MB: Center for Settlement Studies, 1973).

Janet E. Macpherson, “The Pine Point Mine,” in Northern Transitions, Volume I: Northern Resource Use and Land Use Policy Study, eds. Everett B. Peterson and Janet B. Wright (Ottawa, ON: Canadian Arctic Resources Committee, 1978), 65-110.


Arctic Extractive Industries Workshop

Early in October, Professors John Sandlos and Arn Keeling organized a workshop with the Rachel Carson Center (held at Memorial University in Newfoundland) on Extractive Industries in the Arctic. With scholars from around the circumpolar world participating, the workshop was extremely engaging, with much productive discussion about the past, present and future of the Arctic.

For a full workshop report, including acknowledgement of our supporters, click here.

For the workshop website, click here.

For a more reflective blog on the bigger issues associated with this workshop, click here.

Thanks again to all of our supporters and research assistants!


Opportunities for Graduate Study

Toxic Legacies and Northern Exposures Projects
Departments of History and Geography
Memorial University of Newfoundland

John Sandlos, Department of History, and Arn Keeling, Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, are seeking three graduate students at the MA level to work on projects related to the history and geography of toxins at abandoned industrial sites in northern Canada. These positions offer opportunities to work as part of an interdisciplinary team, and funding to conduct research travel in northern Canada as necessary.

Positions Available:

Two One-Year Master’s (MA) in History
The successful candidates will develop major paper projects on the toxic legacy of former industrial sites (mines, hydrocarbon developments, exploration sites) in northern Canada. One of these projects will assess the role of history and memory in the current controversy surrounding the environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project in Yellowknife, while the theme of the second is open.

Two Year Master’s (MA or M.Sc.) in Geography
The successful candidate will produce a thesis-based study of historical land use and ecological change in the Giant Mine area.

Comprehensive funding packages are available with opportunities to augment the amounts through scholarships or Graduate Assistantships.

MemorialUniversity of Newfoundland is one of Canada’s leading comprehensive research institutions. It hosts the largest library in Atlantic Canada in addition to specialized research centres. The university is located in St. John’s, a unique and culturally vibrant city set within stunning natural beauty.

Interested applicants should contact: John Sandlos ( or Arn Keeling (

Although the funding packages are tied to the researchers, prospective students must follow the formal application process for graduate school at Memorial University of Newfoundland. For more information on the School of Graduate Studies go to

Toxic Legacies: Community Perspectives on Arsenic Pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine

John Sandlos (MUN history) and Arn Keeling (MUN geography) are travelled to Yellowknife in July to launch a public engagement and research partnership focusing on the “perpetual care” of a toxic mining waste site in the Northwest Territories. Working with academic partners, the Yellowknives Dene First Nation and Alternatives North, a Yellowknife NGO, Sandlos and Keeling received a SSHRC Partnership Development Grant to study the toxic waste disposal plans at Giant Mine. The project, entitled “Toxic Legacies: Community Perspectives on Arsenic Pollution at Yellowknife’s Giant Mine,” seeks to generate both public engagement and deeper understanding around the challenges posed by long-term environmental contamination.

Link picture

Opened in 1948, Giant Mine was once one of Canada’s most significant gold producers, and is now one of its worst toxic sites. Over 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, the byproduct of roasting gold ore, are buried below the surface at Giant. Because the original owner went bankrupt, the site is now a federal government liability. Recently concluded public hearings in the NWT examined the government’s controversial plans to freeze and permanently store the arsenic underground—plans now estimated to cost nearly a billion dollars.

With their partners, Keeling and Sandlos will co-ordinate research into the historical legacies and future challenges posed by Giant Mine. The project aims to produce an oral history volume documenting the environmental and socio-economic changes experienced by the Yellowknives Dene as a result of mineral development.

Link picture

In partnership with the Yellownives and Alternatives North, the project will also examine how community involvement and Aboriginal knowledge can contribute to solutions surrounding the challenges of perpetual care and communication with future generations. The partners will conduct local workshops and fact-finding missions, comparing the Yellowknife situation with similar cases, such as the Waste Isolation Pilot Project in New Mexico.

Finally, working with Ron Harpelle at Lakehead University and professional filmmakers, the team will also create and distribute a documentary film examining the long-term legacies of Giant Mine.

The three-year Toxic Legacies project is an outgrowth of Sandlos and Keeling’s Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada project, a multi-year, SSHRC-funded investigation into the environmental and social legacies of industrial mineral development in Northern Canada.