The Ekati mine began a transformation that out-performed all other resources and sectors in the NWT.
The greatest staking rush the world’s likely seen, a shakeup of the global diamond industry and a tremendous boost to Northwest Territories finances—all that started with the Ekati discovery announced by Chuck Fipke 25 years ago this week. The effects on the NWT alone were momentous. The exploration sector boomed like never before, reaping four discoveries in six years that became working mines, while communities and individuals realized benefits both tangible and intangible.
Exploration fervour “certainly caused an injection into the economy,” notes Tom Hoefer, NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines executive director. “But where it really made a difference was when we had mines developed.”
It actually took two operations, Ekati and Diavik, to offset the territory’s 1990s economic malaise, he says. Yellowknife’s Giant and Con mines were winding down their 50 to 60 years of gold production. Around the same time, Nunavut’s 1999 separation dealt a blow to NWT revenue. “So there was a double hit on the economy. When Ekati went into production, it wasn’t enough to offset that economic downturn. It wasn’t until Diavik that the economy turned around significantly.
“It was almost palpable when Diavik got its approval. You could cut it, you could just feel it, all of a sudden people were saying, ‘Now we’re set.’ Those turned out to be world-class diamond mines, so in hindsight people were right.”
Of more than $60 billion worth of NWT mining output since 1932, gold provided 18%. It’s sometimes forgotten that the territory was a major base metals producer too, with zinc accounting for 30% of that $60-plus billion. But less than two decades of diamond production contributed 38%. The value of annual diamond production has topped $2 billion in the past “and I think we’re around $1.7 billion now,” Hoefer says. “That’s pretty significant when you consider that the NWT government’s entire budget is about the same.”
With last year’s shutdown of the Cantung tungsten operation, the territory has no mining but diamond mining. The three mines now in operation rank Lac de Gras as the world’s third-largest producer by value.
Figures from 2014 credit diamond mining with a 29% direct contribution to territorial GDP, by far the largest private sector portion. Chamber data attributes direct and indirect benefits to about 40% .
Taking another perspective, Hoefer points to a 2014 Canada-wide survey on aboriginal perceptions of the mining industry. Outside the NWT and Nunavut, favourable ratings ranged from 25% in Quebec to 45% in the Yukon. NWT responses were 55% favourable compared to 33% unfavourable, with 12% undecided. The territory ranked second only to Nunavut, which had 59/32/9 ratings.
“I would say the reason is all the aboriginal participation we’ve had in mining,” Hoefer says.
An NWT-specific survey taken this year shows overwhelming support. About 80% of respondents expressed positive feelings about the territory’s mining and exploration companies, 83% said regulation works well and 82% want more mining projects.
Those responses might partly result from the way benefits are distributed. Territorial legislation requires mining proposals to address not only environmental impacts but also positive socio-economic effects, Hoefer explains. Companies sign agreements with the government that address training, employment and local spending. The miners then file annual reports stating what they’ve accomplished.
“Put the clock back to before diamonds were discovered and the first mine built, there was maybe just a handful of aboriginal companies that could work with mining.” Now the Chamber lists over 60 NWT aboriginal companies created since Ekati began construction in 1996. They’ve shared over $5 billion of the $12 billion that diamond miners have spent in the territory.
The mines have also contributed over $100 million to communities under Impact Benefit Agreements.
And of course there are the jobs. Lac de Gras diamonds have provided over 24,000 person-years of mine employment.
“That’s really in essence what I think a government would want to do with its resources—generate wealth for people who don’t have it.”
Looking to the future, Lac de Gras explorers continue the quest for more deposits. Among existing miners, the Rio Tinto NYSE:RIO/Dominion Diamond TSX:DDC 60/40 JV expects Diavik to last until 2024. Plans to add a fourth deposit won’t extend the lifespan but will keep production robust until shutdown, Hoefer says.
De Beers’ technically challenged Snap Lake shut down last year, at a cost of about 750 jobs. Some of them were saved by Gahcho Kué, which last summer became the world’s largest diamond mine to open in 13 years. But despite output that’s expected to be about two and a half times greater than Snap, the open pit will employ fewer people, currently 441. The De Beers/Mountain Province Diamonds TSX:MPV 51%/49% JV sees an initial 12-year mine life, but Mountain Province talks optimistically of extensions.
Getting back to the genesis of all this economic activity, Dominion’s majority-held Ekati would have its life expectancy extended to at least 2030 should the Jay pipe addition pass feasibility and final permitting. The mine employs around 1,500 workers and accounts for about $400 million in annual spending.
Commemorating the quarter-century since Ekati’s discovery, the NWT and Nunavut Chamber of Mines presents a Diamond Gala on November 17, the final evening of this year’s Geoscience Forum. Hoefer says the event will be a three-part celebration recognizing the discovery, the subsequent construction and operation of four mines, and the support of aboriginal governments. Fipke will be on hand as guest speaker, perhaps marvelling at the transformation brought about by his pursuit of Lac de Gras glitter.