Who owns Voisey's Bay?

By David Playfair, Goose Bay, Labrador, in the
People's Voice, March, 1995

A militant expedition of Innu Indians has invaded a mineral drill site. They burned the pumphouse which provides water for the mud which lubricates the drills. They smashed drill bits. The operation is at a standstill, and the RCMP now guards the site. Why? What's next?

Voisey's Bay, like Oka, is one of those places 99.9% of people never hear about until it becomes the focus of a property interest clash. The bay is off the northeast coast of Labrador, half-way between Nain, a high- unemployment Inuit village, and Davis Inlet, a high-unemployment Innu village. During the great sealing days the Voiseys, a family of mixed white and Inuit race, settled the bay. They did so by leave of the Moravian Church, which had been granted the area by George IV in return for domesticating the aboriginals. The Church and the seal hunt went into decline and the bay became uninhabited. Visiting hunters, of all three races, still went there. So did mineral prospectors; that's how the present dispute started.

Archean Resources went looking for diamonds and found nickel. The world can't get enough of this metal. We know it from coins and magnets, but its greatest use is to alloy steel for high-temperature corrosion resistance. Archean brought in Diamond Fields Resources, a junior mining company heavily reliant on speculative capital from smaller investors. There is still uncertainty as to whether Diamond Fields is a "good corporate citizen," a polite way of saying we're not sure whether they'll fill in the holes or just "rip and run." Bob Friedland, a substantial minority shareholder, has been accused of disregarding pollution controls of a previous U.S. mining operation, and this matter isn't yet resolved. Of course, the provincial government could require a damage deposit to be placed in escrow, but they hesitate to deter any investor.

The sea is still frozen. All equipment and crew are flown in. Why the hurry? Perhaps the company didn't want to lose the investment impetus which followed the nickel strike. Perhaps they want to be an accomplished fact in advance of land claim settlements. How far have they got? They appear to emphasize different aspects to different audiences. If you are a small investor, you should know that they have not yet recovered commercial quantities of ore. If you are a Labradorian native, you need to know there is a lot more to the exploration site than a few scientists hitting rocks with hammers. When a party of Innu visited the site this month, they found enough wooden buildings for fifty workers.

Further, if the enterprise succeeds it may become an open cast pit. There would have to be a mill to grind the ore, and bubble flotation tanks to skim off the nickel-rich portion.

Cynics have dismissed land claims as "fleas arguing which owns the dog." But there are different kinds of fleas. Some malignant species chew a dog's skin into running sores; others may carry the plague. As a general rule, those fleas who depend on the dog as a renewable resource for their future generations are most likely to care for the dog's welfare. It's reasonable to suppose that the aboriginals would be more careful of their environment than outsiders.

The immediate reaction of the Inuit was anger at the Innu for acting without consulting their fellow aboriginals. This hostility is cooling as they realize how many questions are unanswered. When will the government of Newfoundland & Labrador get around to settling native land claims? Will Voisey's Bay be excluded, or shared, or what? Who will collect the royalties for the crown. How many natives will get jobs, and for how long? Will there be mining apprenticeship schemes, or will the local workers just be used to clean bunkhouses and sling hash?

This is not a revolutionary struggle, but it is a struggle for justice. We are witnessing the birth of nations, Innu and Inuit, who choose not to be dragged down into the "underclass." If they regain their ancestral rights, they will have the chance to show it is possible to exploit the riches of the earth without spoiling it. If profit-making interests decline to repair their damage, then a different way must be found.

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