Toxic Legacies: Community Perspectives on Arsenic Pollution at Yellowknife's Giant Mine

Area of Research: 
Public health


To use academic and non-academic media to examine and communicate community perspectives on the history, and current problem of arsenic deposition in Yellowknife.


This project will take on the challenge of using academic and non-academic media to examine and communicate community perspectives on the history, and current problem, of arsenic deposition in Yellowknife. The research team will not only ask how these historical memories have influenced the current controversy over the Giant Mine Remediation Project but will also examine the challenges of communicating the extreme hazard the arsenic stored in the mine presents to future generations. Working with partners that include the Goyatiko Language Society (a Yellowknives Dene non-profit organization dedicated to language and cultural preservation) and Alternatives North (a Yellowknife-based environmental and social justice coalition), the research team will answer the following questions:

  • How can alternative media and public history approaches to research and dissemination (film, oral history, museum displays, and community workshops) on Giant Mine give voice to First Nations perspectives that have been marginalized in archival records and remediation planning?
  • How can historical sources (from archives and existing oral history repositories) be mobilized through the dissemination of historical and contemporary research products that are meaningful, understandable, and useful both to local residents of Yellowknife and to the Canadian public?
  • How have non-Native residents of Yellowknife responded to the issue of arsenic in the local environment? How can the production of public history material on the arsenic issue promote dialogue and engagement on this topic between non-Native Yellowknifers and First Nations? 
  • How should today’s society communicate with people in the deep future about the toxic legacy of Giant Mine’s massive underground arsenic deposits? 
  • How can universities and community-based organizations work together on Giant Mine site remediation issues, and how might this approach be used by other communities facing similar challenges around perpetual care situations (e.g. nuclear waste and toxic site planning)? 

The overall goal is to collaborate with partners to develop and disseminate publicly accessible information and scholarly research material on the historical and contemporary issues surrounding arsenic deposition and storage in Yellowknife. Through four carefully designed sub-projects, the research team will harness the expertise of the project team members and partners in archival research, Aboriginal languages (Weledeh), oral history research, public communication on environmental issues, and film direction and production.

This research and public dissemination activities will offer an important public venue for community perceptions of toxic contamination due to gold mining in Yellowknife. Timed to occur just after the environmental assessment and final development of the Giant Mine Remediation Plan, the research will provide critical perspectives on how local perceptions of risk and have shaped people’s relationships to local environments, and landscapes, over time. This project will also examine how the incorporation of historical memories of toxic harms into site remediation can broaden the notion of ecological restoration to address past, and future, environmental injustices.

In practical terms, partners and community representatives will have a high degree of autonomy within the project and will co-design research methods and protocols, organize and lead workshops (as a primary means to engage with community members), and conduct oral history interviews. In all research involving community participants, the research team will adhere to the Tri-Council Policy Statement: Ethical Conduct for Research Involving Humans, and seek ethics approval from Memorial University and Lakehead University. The research team will also adhere strictly to all relevant territorial and community-based research protocols. 

The specific methodological approaches to this research are best outlined in the description of the four specific sub-projects:

  1. An oral history and community mapping project on Giant Mine, arsenic poisoning, and the Yellowknives Dene First Nation: the Goyatiko Language Society, will transcribe and translate the mining-related source material for inclusion in an illustrated oral history that documents the impact of gold mining and arsenic on the Yellowknife’s Dene First Nation (YKDFN). Goyatiko will also produce a companion multi-media web display and web-based curriculum supplement (a short booklet of lesson plans built out of the website and oral history) for senior elementary students in the NWT. Goyatiko will use as source material existing collections held locally at YKDFN and oral history interviews conducted in partnership with Principal Investigator John Sandlos as part of the SSHRC-funded Abandoned Mines in Northern Canada project. The research team will also co-supervise one graduate student at Memorial who will work with Goyatiko to develop a historical Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and community mapping study of land use and ecological change in the Yellowknife region due to the introduction of gold mining. Sources for this project will include aerial photographs, historical maps, satellite data, and interviews with elders in the community (map biographies). The Goyatiko Language Society will take the lead on this project due to its expertise in Weledeh (the YKDFN language) translation, and its experience in training local YKDFN members in translation and transcription skills for oral history and cultural history projects.
  2. Commemorating past arsenic exposure and communicating hazards to future generations: In response to the environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project, our partner, Alternatives North, played a critical role in producing public interest research on the perpetual care of long-term contaminated sites. For this project, Alternatives North will produce publicly accessible research reports on the best means to communicate with future generations about the hazards of underground arsenic at the Giant Mine site. To achieve this goal, Alternatives North will draw upon similar, publicly available research documents produced by the Waste Isolation Pilot Project (WIPP) for nuclear waste storage in the United States. Furthermore, two Alternatives North representatives and two members of the YKDFN will travel to the WIPP site in Carlsbad, New Mexico, for hands-on learning about communicating toxic risks to people in the deep future. Research results will be communicated at two workshops: one public workshop in Yellowknife and one for YKDFN members. The workshops will include guided site visits of the Giant Remediation Project for YKDFN members and other local and invited participants, and one expert from WIPP and one from Canada’s Nuclear Waste Management Organization will be invited to share expert knowledge with Yellowknife residents and YKDFN members. Part of the workshop will focus on appropriate commemorative historical displays on the arsenic issue as part of a museum planned by the NWT Mining Heritage Society at the Giant Mine site. The workshop will also consider issues such as appropriate site markers, inventorying and preservation of mine records, and communicate all of this information to future generations. 
  3. Documenting Giant Mine’s history and the remediation project in a film: The research team will work with professional filmmakers to produce a documentary film and series of instructional video clips on the long-term communication issue and the current controversy surrounding the Giant Mine Remediation Project. Working closely with Goyatiko Language Society, YKDFN, and Alternatives North, the filmmakers will conduct two workshops to introduce the films to YKDFN and city residents, and also develop contacts for potential on-screen interviewees or those who can provide background information. The research team will act as historical advisors on this project, Alternatives North will advise on environmental issues, and Goyatiko Language Society will help guide the filmmakers on culturally appropriate ways to include YKDFN members and oral history sources. The ultimate goal of this sub-project is to produce a documentary film that captures both the historical environmental injustices associated with gold mining in Yellowknife and ambivalence of local people to the perpetual care scenario associated with the remediation project. In addition to the film, a production of a series of short video clips to be posted on the internet for use by the partners, educators, and other interested parties. The clips will resemble those on the site:
  4. History, memory, and the Giant Mine Remediation Project: The principal investigator will lead a project on the role that history and memory have played in the controversy surrounding the environmental assessment of the Giant Mine Remediation Project. A history MA student at Memorial, co-supervised by the research team, will use documentary sources and oral interviews to explore this topic. The primary goal of this sub-project is to examine how local histories of toxic contamination shape and define contemporary responses to contaminated sites by government, industry, and local people.

To reach particular audiences of interest, the research team will use a combination of in-person and digital communications strategies. Two public workshops will be held for the Yellowknife community, and for members of the YKDFN, to communicate findings related to the long-term storage and care of hazardous materials. The investigators and their graduate students will also directly communicate research to these constituencies via public presentations and posters describing research outcomes (strategies we have found success in previous northern research). 

In addition, in partnership with the investigators, the Goyatiko Language Society will lead the production of communications in the Weledeh language for YKDFN members. These communications will include:

  • An oral history book project and companion website documenting the experiences and impacts of gold mining and arsenic on the Yellowknives Dene First Nation, based on the transcription and translation of previously collected oral histories;
  • A historical mapping project, in English and Weledeh, based on a study of historical land use using aerial photos, satellite imagery, and map biography interviews conducted by a student supervised at Memorial University; 
  • The development of web-based curriculum materials based on the above-noted stories and products for Dettah and N’dilo schools, and potentially for Northern Studies courses offered through the Yellowknife public, Catholic, and French school systems.

The fieldwork for this study was conducted from January 3, 2014, to December 30, 2014.

View on the Aurora Research Institute database