$1.3B Leave it in the Ground Blunder at Windy Craggy (or N’tsi Tata)

Commentary, Aboriginal Futures, Joseph Quesnel

A World Heritage site designation continues to prevent the development of one of the largest cobalt and copper deposits in North America, thereby denying opportunities for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities and serving as an example of how environmental activism is fueling northern alienation. 

Windy Craggy (or N’tsi Tata as it is known by the local Indigenous peoples) is in northwestern British Columbia, about an hour west of Whitehorse, Yukon by helicopter. The area has no permanent residents or road access.  

However, informed observers in the mining world have long maintained that deposits in the region would have yielded tremendous economic benefits for residents – both from the Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. B.C.’s Ministry of Energy, Mines and Petroleum Resources placed a value of $15 billion on metal contained in the Windy Craggy deposit.

Geologists estimate the mine could have a minimum life of 50 years. Moreover, direct taxes to federal and provincial governments would have reached almost $1.3 billion. So, the deposit would have been good for both the region and the province. 

So, what happened? Back in the early 1990s, the B.C. government introduced a project review legislation that led to uncertainty amongst mining investors, including a major developer involved in the Windy Craggy project. Eventually, it became public that the large area was being considered for a World Heritage site designation. So, without much parliamentary debate and only some last-minute talks with local Indigenous communities, the Tatshenshini World Heritage site was created. The site was bi-national as it includes portions of Alaska to the north and south.

Windy Craggy was well on its way to becoming a massive copper mine when the B.C. government encircled it with Tatshenshini-Alsek Park in 1993. Geddes Resources, the mining company developing the site before the designation, received a $29 million payout and the province spent almost $150 million to build a mine elsewhere. 

A similar incident in a northern region occurred in 2017 when the federal government proposed to create a national park over lands containing lucrative nickel ore deposits in northern Manitoba. The deposit –  located in the Manitoba Lowlands near Grand Rapids between Lake Winnipeg and Lake Winnipegosis – does include important wetlands and wildlife that need preserving, but there is an issue of how extensive the national park needs to be to achieve these objectives.

In that case, mining industry representatives said the park included feeder ore deposits that could keep mining going in the Thompson region for years to come. Not long ago, the viability of existing mines was called into question, leaving the economic future of the region in doubt. 

In the case of Windy Craggy and this mine in northern Manitoba, executives working with policymakers could have found ways to accommodate multiple users for the region. Mining activity can co-exist with areas that are designated natural heritage and off-limits to development. 

For these northern regions, this sort of activity is some of the only economic development they can manage. However, as often happens when we come to northern and remote regions that are far from the seat of power, they are neglected and marginalized in the policy process. Non-Indigenous resource communities in northern B.C. can take another look at the Windy Craggy deposit and its potential. There is the potential for many spin-off ventures to service the mine. 

The Indigenous community that resides in the Windy Craggy/N’tsi Tatay area is also doubly marginalized in terms of access to viable economic development opportunities. The local Champagne Aishihik First Nation should take a leading role in engaging with resource partners in developing and managing the deposit. The community knows the region intimately and can be effective environmental stewards of the region. 

Finally, the decision to create a world heritage site over the northern region has ironic environmental consequences. Ostensibly designated for reasons of preserving pristine ecosystems, observers today could take note that cobalt is a metal critical in electric vehicles. Cobalt is used in the production of lithium-ion batteries. 

Most of the world’s cobalt comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which has a horrid record on human rights, labour standards, and environmental stewardship. It is scandalous that human rights advocates and environmental activists would not be pushing for the development of sites such as Windy Craggy. This creates significant reserves of ethically-sourced cobalt for the region and it advances northern communities in Canada. It seems a no-brainer. 

If governments are serious about addressing both northern alienation and Indigenous economic reconciliation at the same time, they would re-evaluate the Windy Craggy/project immediately. 

 

Joseph Quesnel is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. www.fcpp.org

Photo by Peter Fitzpatrick on Unsplash.