Indigenous TikToker uses platform to call out mass contamination of Yellowknife's toxic Giant Mine
TORONTO -- An Indigenous filmmaker is using TikTok to raise awareness about the toxic mess left behind at Giant Mine in Yellowknife, N.W.T., and the health risks it poses to the surrounding community.
Morgan Tsetta, a Yellowknives Dene First Nation photographer and filmmaker working in Vancouver, has been posting videos about the mine in an effort to pressure the federal government for an apology and compensation.
“I initially started because I had a moderate platform from TikTok throughout quarantine,” Tsetta said on CTV’s Your Morning Wednesday. “I knew a large portion of my following was Canadian – and I hoped we could get the minimum signature requirement and bring this to the government.”
Giant Mine has been at the centre of a prolonged environmental battle, as the closed former gold mine is one of Canada's most contaminated industrial sites and contains 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide, an industrial chemical used to treat wood and other materials and also used as a cancer drug.
The Yellowknives Dene are seeking an apology for the loss of their traditional lands and compensation for the damage and health impacts it has caused.
Tstetta said many of the comments on her TikToks are from Canadians who have “never heard about this.”
“Its not surprising that it’s not known or talked about, there is a certain degree of coverup that is prevalent in the history of Giant Mine,” Tsetta said.
The Yellowknives Dene are also seeking a seat at the Giant Mine Remediation Project, which is meant to address the toxic arsenic leftovers and supervise the demolition and removal of all buildings on the surface.
When Tsetta began posting about the mine in November, the Yellowknives petition had approximately 200 signatures and needed traction to hit the minimum 500 signatures necessary for an electronic petition. The petition closed in March, with more than 32,000 signatures thanks to Tstetta’s efforts.
“Giant Mine is a monster that has loomed over many generations of Yellowknives Dene. It is constantly changing shape… but its legacy is always destruction and death,” said Johanne Black, Director of Treaty, Rights and Governance of Yellowknives Dene First Nation on the petition website.
A spokesperson for Crown-Indigenous relations and Northern Affairs Canada said the federal government is aware of the petition and will formally respond, telling Your Morning “we recognise the tremendous work undertaken by the YellowKnives Dene First Nation on this important matter and we are now working with the First Nation on the next steps regarding their request for apology and compensation.”
Tstetta says she will continue to update her TikTok followers throughout the process.
“It’s kind of a delicate situation waiting for the government’s response,” she said. “So I really want to make sure we continue to hold the government responsible and keep this pressure on them regarding this petition.”
HISTORY OF GIANT MINE
The area surrounding Giant Mine was occupied by the tatsot’ine people (metal people) around Tinde’e (Great Slave Lake) long before explorers, fur traders or prospectors ventured north, the YellowKnives Dene petition site says.
“These people are the ancestors of today’s Yellowknives dene,” it continues. Numerous traditional villages, the largest being Dettah, were located along the east shore of Yellowknife Bay, while the west shore was reserved for moose hunting, berry picking and medicinal plant harvesting.
Today, the area is home to the Dettah and Ndilo communities both located on the north shore of Great Slave Lake.
Gold was discovered by prospectors in the Yellowknife area in 1896, but nothing came of the discovery until 1935 with the arrival of commercial aircraft (bush planes) which made the area more accessible and the gold boom began, according to the Indigenous and Northern Affairs website.
After stops and starts during economic hardships and the Second World War, Giant Mine officially opened and the first gold brick was poured in 1948. This marked the beginning of Yellowknife’s booming mining industry – Giant Mine produced seven million ounces of gold and was one of the longest continuous gold mining operations in Canadian history.
However, the gold at Giant Mine was found in minerals called arsenopyrite ore, and to release the gold the ore had to be heated at extremely high temperatures which released arsenic rich gas, a highly toxic by-product.
Much of the arsenic was released directly into the environment in the early days, the government website states, until a “scrubber” was installed in 1951 to help remove the arsenic trioxide waste. A second scrubber was installed in 1955.
In 1958, a “baghouse” was installed to collect the waste instead of releasing it into the environment, and “scientists and government agencies agreed storing it in underground stopes and chambers” was the best long-term solution. They believed the “natural permafrost in the area would re-establish around the storage vaults and seal in the arsenic trioxide,” the website says.
The Yellowknives Dene petition site says that the contamination from the mine affected the surrounding land, plant and animal life, “including drinking water sources” relied upon by the community.
Giant Mine was in full operation for approximately 50 years and produced 237,000 tonnes of arsenic trioxide waste.
Ore stopped being processed at Giant Mine after 1999, and in that year Canada sold the mine’s assets to Miramar Giant Mine Ltd., a subsidiary of Miramar Mining Corporation.
A condition of that sale was that Miramar would not be held responsible or liable for the existing state of the mine and Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada became a caretaker of the site – including the arsenic trioxide underground.
Miramar Giant Mine Ltd., ended its obligations in 2005 under the Reclamation Security Agreement, and Giant Mine officially became an abandoned mine site.
Due to the mine’s practices, some areas in Yellowknife contain high levels of arsenic, a 2019 Health Advisory lists 11 lakes in the area that people “should avoid swimming, fishing and harvesting berries mushrooms or other edible plants” around as their arsenic levels are above 52 parts per billion.
Arsenic exposure can be fatal - effects from brief exposures to a high level can cause vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhea, numbness and tingling of the extremities, muscle cramping and death.
Chronic exposure to toxic forms of arsenic can cause bladder, kidney, liver, lung and skin cancers and can cause skin lesions, skin colour changes and hard patches of skin on the body. It has also been associated with developmental affects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.
The Yellowknives Dene First Nation petition alleges that Canada did not protect or warn the community about the arsenic poisoning from the mine, saying illnesses and the death of a child occurred due to contamination of food and water.
“Our land is spoiled. It is not like what it was. We are fearful of harvesting anything near Giant Mine. We are fearful of fishing in the Yellowknife Bay and gathering berries close by,” said Chief Ernest Betsina, Ndilo Chief of the Yellowknives First Nation in a press release.