How the Natural Diamond Industry Supports Canada’s Last Frontier

Diamond miners in Canada are prioritizing giving back to the community

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Arctic Canadian Diamond Company - A worker looks out on the Summer landscape near the Ekati diamond mine.

Jonas Sangris remembers a time before diamonds were discovered in Canada. He was the Chief of the Dene First Nation, an indigenous group in Canada’s far north. It was the early 1990s, and metals mining was the prevalent industry that was soon to disappear, leaving a substantial economic void in the community. Jonas recalls approaching the community elders at that time and expressing concern for the impending economic issues, to which the elders calmly replied, “don’t worry, something will come up.” A year later, diamonds were discovered. This discovery would transform the Northwest Territories of Canada.

“It was like the elders knew,” remembers Jonas. The economy of the Northwest Territories of Canada has grown 80.7% since 1999, thanks in large part to diamond mining. 

Jonas Sangris

Community leaders in the Northwest Territories wanted to ensure the discovery of diamonds on their land would benefit all of their people. This benefit wasn’t seen in most other types of mining that came before, but they were going to make sure it happened moving forward. With the mining companies, local and federal governments and indigenous groups working together, measures and agreements were put in place to guarantee this benefit to the people and the natural environment.

Members of the First Nation Indigenous group at the Diavik diamond mine

Since 1996, diamond mines in the Northwest Territories of Canada have contributed over $24 billion to the economy. Of this, nearly $17 billion has gone towards businesses in the Northwest Territories and $7.5 billion to companies owned by Indigenous people. Of the total economic contribution, only 30% left the Northwest Territories. Diamond mining is also the largest private sector industry in the whole of the Northwest Territories, contributing 24% of the total GDP in 2020.

While economic contribution during the time the mines are operational is excellent, what happens to the community if the mine needs to close? This has long been an issue for mineral-rich areas, but it’s an issue that the natural diamond industry works hard to mitigate. They do this by hiring locally, keeping financial benefits local and investing in education. 

An employee working at the Ekati diamond mine

Through the purchase of goods and services from local residents, operating mine benefits flow into countless other local industries. In 2021, nearly $700 million flowed through NWT business from the mines’ local procurement. In turn, the additional income of residents and local businesses boosts the local retail economy. Diamond mining revenue is also shared with the provincial and federal governments through royalties and taxes. The royalty rate alone can be up to 13% in addition to corporate taxes, property taxes, fuel taxes and even a carbon tax based on the mines’ fuel consumption to help offset their carbon footprint. The government of the Northwest Territories then shares these royalties with the local indigenous groups, contributing over $8.6 million to these groups in 2021 alone. 

As part of diamond miners’ agreements with the local government, the mines also supply a percentage of the rough diamonds discovered to diamond cutters and polishers in the Northwest Territories. This ensures a local supply of diamonds to support these businesses and provides opportunities for residents to pursue employment and training in the diamond cutting and polishing industry. 

An environmental officer at the Gacho Kue diamond mine in winter

Tyrell Sangris, the grandson of Mr. Jonas Sangris, is a diamond cutting apprentice in the Northwest Territories capital of Yellowknife. He explains how the diamond industry provides lucrative employment options for young people who may have otherwise needed to leave their homes for more opportunities. “You can always tell who just started working in the diamond mines because they’ll be driving a new F-150,” he says. 

Diamond mines in Canada’s north seek to hire as many local Northern residents and indigenous people as possible to keep benefits local. This feat is easier said than done, as the total population of the Northwest Territories is less than 45,000. Even still, since 1996, 48% of diamond mine employees were local, and 24% were indigenous. 

The diamond industry in Canada funds multiple programs aimed at the education and job training of locals in the community. Training and education can lead residents to better employment, commanding higher salaries. The mines work with the Department of Education, Culture and Employment and organizations like the Mine Training Society, Skills Canada and Aurora College to support the northern workforce. The training and education help the mines to be able to hire more locals but also prepare residents for jobs outside the mining industry. 

An employee standing at the exterior of the Diavik diamond mine
An employee at the Ekati diamond mine

Melanie Sangris was born and raised in Yellowknife and is a member of the Yellowknives Dene First Nation. She has advanced her career to become the Diavik diamond mine’s first female Tele-remote Scoop Operator. The path to her success was not always easy, “I was having a hard time navigating what to do once I was out of school,” she says. But she soon found her calling. A friend introduced her to the Mine Training Society, and they enrolled in training programs together. She found she was interested in the training courses and had a good understanding of the concepts of the mining cycle.

“Heavy equipment was new to me; I felt proud of myself that I was able to catch on quickly,” she recalls. “That encouraged me to learn all I can, practice and stick with it.” Among her achievements, she is most proud of purchasing her first home and being a mother who works at a diamond mine. The Diavik diamond mine continues to support her growth as an individual and employee, sponsoring her training in the Northern Leadership Development Program offered through Aurora College. In 2021 alone, 1,155 students in the Northwest Territories received financial assistance through these programs. 

Canada’s diamond industry is an example of what is possible when companies put people, communities, and the environment ahead of profit. Everyone wins when the community is invested in success, and the company is invested in the community. 

*Data from the 2021 Government of the Northwest Territories Socio-economic agreement report for mines operating in the NWT