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Canadian Gems: Diamond Mining in the Headwaters of the Coppermine River

The Coppermine River meanders north through the heart of Canada’s Arctic region. From its headwaters in the Lac de Gras watershed (approximately 200 km north of Yellowknife, the nearest city) to the Inuit community of Kugluktuk on the Arctic Ocean, the Coppermine flows through lush open tundra. Succulent wild berries abound along its banks and fish such as Arctic grayling, with their remarkable sail-like dorsal fins, thrive beneath its surface.

The Coppermine watershed is home to an abundance of wildlife, including grizzly bears, muskox, and caribou. Lakes and streams in the area host a variety of species of fish, including lake trout, whitefish, and Arctic char. Aquatic organisms grow relatively slowly in the cold and nutrient poor water of Canada’s North, but the land and water have provided ample food for Indigenous communities for many generations.

The Coppermine River shares its headwaters with some of the richest diamond deposits in the world. Like the river itself, the diamonds that come from the Ekati and Diavik diamond mines, which are both located in the upper reaches of the Lac de Gras watershed, are some of the clearest and purest on earth. The superb quality of the diamonds — along with the presence of rare colours like yellow and champagne — has resulted in high demand for Canadian gems around the world.

Dominion Diamond Mines and Rio Tinto, who operate the Ekati and Diavik mines respectively, have shown commitment to ensuring that the quality of the river will continue to mirror the quality of the diamonds. Each company collects and analyses hundreds of water quality samples in and around Lac de Gras each year. These samples are used in conjunction with biological monitoring programs to evaluate whether mining activities might be affecting the aquatic environment near or downstream of the mines. The companies also work with Indigenous communities, whose ancestors have depended on the land and water in their traditional territory for many generations, to ensure that the water and the fish that live in it are healthy.

In 2018 and 2015, Rio Tinto hosted an “on the land” Traditional Knowledge Aquatic Effects Monitoring Camp on the shores of Lac de Gras to work with elders from local indigenous communities to gain insight on fish health in waterbodies near the mine. Rio Tinto will use the information that was shared at the camp along with fish tissue samples and population surveys conducted by technical consultants to ensure that the environmental protection measures they have in place are working.

Dominion Diamond Mines conducted a similar science- and Traditional Knowledge-based fish monitoring program in lakes near the Ekati Diamond Mine, just upstream of Lac de Gras, in 2018. The results of the 2018 program will build on over 20 years of data collected as part of their annual aquatic effects monitoring program, which has been in place since before mining began.

Dominion Diamond Mines has also committed to funding a community-led water quality monitoring program in Kugluktuk, Nunavut where the Coppermine River meets the Arctic Ocean, approximately 845 km downstream of Lac de Gras. The Coppermine River estuary, which is immediately adjacent to the community of Kugluktuk, is home to an abundance of Arctic char, which provide an important food source upon which many people in the community depend.

Socially and environmentally responsible diamond mining is a necessity in Canada’s North, where project and permit approvals are governed by a unique system of co-management between regulatory agencies and Indigenous communities. This system ensures that industry, regulatory agencies, and Indigenous communities work together to find an appropriate balance between the socio-economic benefits of diamond mining and its potential environment effects. It also provides an exemplary framework for river stewardship, where end uses as seemingly diverse as mineral extraction and subsistence fishing can concur through inclusive approaches that honour diverse ways of understanding and protecting aquatic systems. Most importantly, it delivers an excellent prognosis for the health of the Coppermine River for generations to come.

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April Hayward has a Ph.D. in ecology from McMaster University, where she studied the effects of nutrients and temperature on aquatic systems. She is employed with Dominion Diamond Mines, where she is responsible for managing environmental programs at the Ekati Diamond Mine.


Canadian Gems: Diamond Mining in the Headwaters of the Coppermine River was originally published in Stories Behind the Brilliance of Diamonds on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.