By Jorge Barrera
APTN National News
ATTAWAPISKAT–An ongoing blockade by Attawapiskat residents of an ice road leading to a De Beers diamond mine in northern Ontario is causing “significant financial damages” and “irreparable harm” which could force the mining giant to shut its operations down, according to the company.
De Beers officials hand-delivered a letter Tuesday night to Attawapiskat resident John Edwards warning him the company could seek an injunction against him if the blockade doesn’t end. It’s believed De Beers plans to deliver similar letters to at least two other individuals the company believes are involved in the blockade.
The warning letter comes as all sides prepare for a meeting Thursday to discuss the situation. A meeting was initially planned for Wednesday, but Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence won’t return to the community until she ends scheduled meetings in Moose Factory, Ont.
The blockade, which began Sunday evening, is now entering into its fourth day and is the second such action in as many weeks. A previous blockade ended last Thursday. De Beers has an about 45 day window to ship supplies up the ice road.
The blockade forced a convoy of empty fuel trucks to turn back to the diamond mine on Sunday. It is set up about 8 kilometres from Attawapiskat on an ice road leading to the mine. The Victor mine sits about 90 kilometres west of the community.
The ice road to the mine is connected to a longer, main ice road which connects Attawapiskat to Moosonee, Ont., about 260 kilometres to the south.
The ice road is blocked by a cube truck, loaded with frozen meats and pizzas along with two barbecues, pallets and a constantly changing number of pick-up trucks.
The number of people at the blockade fluctuates throughout the day. A small group, including three pick-up trucks, was at the site shortly after midnight Wednesday and they feasted on two free pizzas from town.
The situation has been described as a “crisis” which is entering into “uncharted territory,” according to two community sources with knowledge of the situation who requested anonymity.
De Beers’ move to threaten a court injunction against the blockade has also opened the possibility of intervention by the OPP. While the Nishnawbe Aski police patrols the community, the force does not have jurisdiction over the ice road.
While it began quietly, the blockade has slowly gained support among some sectors of the community and its core group inclues three or four families who have traplines running through the vicinity of area controlled by De Beers.
The families are seeking compensation for the loss of their traditional territory. Others involved, however, say they joined the blockade because they believe De Beers should be investing in housing for the community. Some involved in the blockade also have personal grievances related to past employment and rates of pay.
Edwards joined the blockade because his uncle’s trapline runs through the Victor mine and his grandmother is buried adjacent to the site.
Edwards told APTN National News he had no plans to withdraw from the blockade.
Victor Mine manager James Kirby told APTN National News that the ice road was the mine’s “umbilical cord” and essential for its resupply. He said a prolonged blockade could force the mine to shut down.
The ice road is used in particular for the transportation of fuel, machinery and spare parts too heavy to fly into the mine’s airport.
The ice road link, however, has been severed for eight days as a result of the two blockades.
The warning letter to Edwards was signed by Fasken Martineau DuMoulin lawyer Tracy Pratt. Pratt says the company has retained the law firm and states that De Beers “will not hesitate to protect and enforce its full legal rights through an injunction motion” if the blockade doesn’t end.
“This unlawful conduct is causing our client significant financial damages and irreparable harm. Among other things, the blockade has serious health and safety implications and consequences for the mine’s continued full operation,” the letter states. “The continuation of this blockade cannot be tolerated.”
The roots of the blockade extend years and centre on an impact benefit agreement between Attawapiskat and De Beers which was ratified in 2005.
Those involved in the blockade say the IBA did not have full community support when it passed. They argue that the IBA doesn’t address the needs of the community or give Attawapiskat full benefit of the riches in their territory.
Under the IBA, De Beers has transferred $10.5 million into a trust fund held by Attawapiskat as of January 2011.
APTN National News has learned that De Beers is looking to use the trust fund money, which was originally created to provide funding for Attawapiskat into the future, to pay for some of the compensation claims issued by those involved in the blockade.
The mine had also generated $448 million on gross revenues as of January 2011, according to a De BeersPowerPoint presentation on the IBA.
De Beers says it has invested about $1.022 billion of capital costs into the mine.
De Beers says about $325 million worth of contracts have been awarded to “solely owned or joint venture companies run by the community” since construction began. Some in the community dispute the number accurately reflects the reality on the ground. Some have also questioned the make-up of some of the joint ventures.
De Beers says in its PowerPoint that a shorter Attawapiskat blockade in 2009 cost the company $3.5 million.
*Editor’s note: the IBA was ratified in 2005. The date has been changed in the above story.