The social cost of northern development

Feb 28th, 2014

Janet Harron

The social cost of northern development

Canada’s North offers tremendous potential for development. But northern development often comes with significant social and environmental costs, particularly for Aboriginal communities. That’s just as true now as in 1948 when Giant Mine opened in Yellowknife. 

Over the course of 56 years the mine produced over 220,000 kilograms of gold and significant economic returns for the mine’s shareholders. But that gold didn’t come cheap. A by-product of the massive economic development generated by the mine was over 200,000 tons of arsenic dust that has caused severe health effects  and at least one death among Yellowknives Dene First Nation (YKDFN) members and others in and around Yellowknife. The arsenic is still buried at the site.

Memorial history professor John Sandlos and his research partner geographer Dr. Arn Keeling have spent the last several years researching old and abandoned mines in the north.

The Toxic Legacies Project is their latest collaboration. A partnership among researchers at Memorial and Lakehead universities, the Goyatiko Language Society (a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of the Weledeh language)  and Alternatives North  (a Yellowknife environmental and social justice coalition), the SSHRC-funded project examines the history and legacy at Giant Mine.

“It was a natural evolution from our project on abandoned mines in northern Canada,” says Dr. Sandlos. “The Giant Mine story is ongoing as there is a current proposal to freeze the arsenic under Giant Mine forever. This raises similar issues to nuclear waste.”

One of these issues is how to communicate with future generations about the presence of dangerous waste. The Toxic Legacies Project asks how we can keep people of the future from entering the arsenic chambers and explain to them what must be done to keep the arsenic contained.

“The development grant we received from SSHRC is oriented toward public outreach,” said Dr. Sandlos, explaining that this means an emphasis on websites, workshops, films and open access reports. “Our work on this project is meant to generate practical research responses to pressing questions about the issue of long term contamination of abandoned mine sites.”

This semester, Dr. Sandlos is also teaching about these issues in a new course specifically on Canada and the Great White North, which (according to the syllabus) “will examine the idea and historical processes that have contributed to the colonization of the land and people of the Canadian North.”

The course will progress chronologically through pre contact, oral history narratives and contemporary industrial practices. Dr. Sandlos is particularly proud that he has assigned a significant amount of primary source material for students as well as films from Isuma TV, a First Nations alternative media site.

“We’re definitely bringing First Nations voices into the course as well as looking at militarization, northern development and toxic legacies,” said Dr. Sandlos. “Using the films we can bring the perspective of an Inuit elder directly into the classroom.” 

He made his first trip North in the late 1990s when his wife (Memorial biologist Dr. Yolanda Wiersma) got a job as a high school teacher in Fort Resolution, on the shore of Great Slave Lake, NWT.


Several things about that first visit made an impression including the low winter light and his first glimpse of the aurora borealis. Any idea he might have had about a pristine north was shattered, however when he first encountered  over 40 open pits during a visit to the abandoned Pine Point Mine.

“It was an eye-opener for sure – the impact on that landscape was just stunning,” he recalls.

The Guardians of Eternity, a documentary film about the arsenic issue at Giant Mine is currently in development with independent filmmakers Kelly Saxberg and France Benoit.  A short clip can be seen at http;//

For more on the Toxic Legacies Project see