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The treeless tundra that makes up much of Canada's Arctic has a frigid, untouched beauty, strewn with wildflowers in summer and crystalline snow in winter. For countless generations, only the North's Aboriginal people roamed this vast, beautiful land, to hunt for caribou and muskoxen.

But during the late 20th century, thousands of mineral explorers came to the tundra. They were hunting for diamonds.

Discovery: Diamonds in Canada's Arctic

Diamonds in Canada's Arctic
GNWT-RWED
Diamonds from the Canadian Arctic are mined from deep in the frozen rock, in the remote tundra, a place where few believed such treasures could be found.

But prospector Chuck Fipke and his partner, Dr. Stu Blusson believed they could. For a decade in the 1980s, the pair scoured the wild land for samples that would show minerals often found in association with diamonds. In 1985, Fipke found them, in a sample he'd taken near Lac de Gras, some 300 km northeast of Yellowknife. Fipke was convinced he'd found evidence of diamond-bearing kimberlites — ancient "pipes" of volcanic rock that bear the hard crystals we call diamonds. In 1991, when Fipke and Blusson's company, DiaMet, had joined forces with Australia's BHP Minerals, the first economically-viable kimberlite was discovered.

Drilling at Point Lake, BHP/DiaMet found 81 diamonds. Although not the first diamond find in North America, it was the first major commercial deposit. When the discovery was announced, it sparked the biggest staking rush in Canadian history.

Aber Resources, led by mining engineer Grenville Thomas and geologist Chris Jennings, also found diamond-bearing pipes in the Lac de Gras area in 1991. Aber staked east of the BHP/DiaMet claims, laying the groundwork for the Diavik Project.

Meanwhile, Winspear Resources was working on claims to the west, at a place called Snap Lake. The property was acquired in 2000 by the South African diamond-mining giant, De Beers.

By 2002, over 300 kimberlite pipes had been found in the Northwest Territories, 15 to 25 of them with economic potential. Many large diamond companies continue to explore the significant diamond potential of the Northwest Territories.

Development

Diamonds in Canada's Arctic
GNWT-RWED
When diamonds were found in the deep rock of the remote Canadian tundra, the mining world was electrified. Claims were staked over millions of hectares. By the time the exploration boom was over, Canada's first diamond mine the Ekati Diamond Mine™, was in development by BHP/DiaMet. The company found dozens of new kimberlite pipes on its 344,000 hectare claim block. One of the diamond pipes carried unusual numbers of desirable white stones, of gem size and quality. After a stringent approval process, BHP/DiaMet began its operations in 1998.

BHP acquired DiaMet's share in the project, and the Ekati Diamond Mine™ is now 80% owned by BHP Billiton Diamonds Inc. and 20% by the original discoverers, Chuck Fipke and Dr. Stu Blusson. The Ekati Diamond Mine™ is located approximately 300 km northeast of Yellowknife, capital city of the Northwest Territories (click for map of mines). The mine is estimated to yield 3 to 5 million carats annually. Many large diamonds have been recovered, including a 182 carat stone. It employs about 600 people year-round, 66% of whom live in the Northwest Territories. Of that number, half come from Aboriginal communities. For more information, please visit www.ekati.ca.

The Diavik Diamonds Project was approved for permitting and licensing by Canada's federal government in 1999, and all approvals to begin construction of North America's second diamond mine were in place by late 2000. Plans call for a production startup in the first half of 2003. The project will mine four pipes. Diluted mineable reserves are estimated at 27.1 million tonnes containing 106.7 million carats, at an average reserve grade of 3.9 carats per tonne. Located approximately 300 km northeast of Yellowknife (click for map of mines), the project is a joint venture between Diavik Diamond Mines Inc. (60 percent), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rio Tinto, and Aber Diamond Corporation (40 percent). It is expected to employ about 400 people. To learn more, please visit www.diavik.ca.

De Beers submitted its project description for permitting of a mine at Snap Lake in February, 2001, and could commence production within the next five years. The proposed mine-site is located about 220 km north of Yellowknife (click for map of mines). For more information, please visit www.debeerscanada.com.

Secondary industry

Working with the private sector, the Government of the Northwest Territories is committed to maximizing the opportunities created by development of diamond resources in Canada's Northwest Territories. This long-term goal includes developing a world-class secondary diamond industry and helping to diversify the northern economy. This has meant encouraging cutting and polishing factories to establish themselves in Yellowknife, developing world-class training programs, and supporting skilled jobs for Northerners.

Although the secondary industry is relatively new, this development has already benefited the north. Total employment created to date equals approximately 150 persons. This is significant considering that in 1999, the manufacturing sector in the NWT employed only 172 people. It is also estimated that at full production, the three cutting and polishing facilities will contribute over 9 million to the Territorial GDP almost doubling the manufacturing sectors contribution prior to development.

The future

It is anticipated that once Northwest Territories mines reach full production, they will produce from 12% to 15% of the world's diamonds by value — making Canada the third-largest producer of diamonds, ahead of South Africa. Given this significant supply of diamonds, greater development of cutting and polishing factories is expected. Efforts are under way to encourage a jewellery-making industry, combining high-quality Canadian Arctic™ diamonds with traditional northern jewellery designs. There are also opportunities for increased tourism to the Northwest Territories.
Article credit: Diamond Projects, Government of the Northwest Territories.