In Canada, the New Rush Is for Diamonds

As one 240-ton dump truck loaded with ore makes the 22-minute trip up the corkscrew road from the Diavik mine's open pit, others return for another load.
As one 240-ton dump truck loaded with ore makes the 22-minute trip up the corkscrew road from the Diavik mine's open pit, others return for another load. (By Doug Struck -- The Washington Post)
By Doug Struck
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 5, 2007

LAC DE GRAS, Northwest Territories -- Gold opened this northern land, attracting a rush of prospectors and miners who splayed the earth, built up towns and then, after seven decades, closed up the last exhausted gold mine two years ago.

Now there are diamonds.

The first were found by a stubborn geologist who financed years of searching with money borrowed from neighbors. That prompted the biggest rush to stake mining claims in North America. Today, three mines are open and more are planned, bringing a flush of cash to northern Canada and making the country the third-largest producer of diamonds by value, surpassing even South Africa.

The booming industry is replacing the stigma of "blood diamonds" mined in conflict zones with images of polar bears and maple leaves engraved on snow-pure gems.

The riches have brought a juggernaut of men and machines to the remote tundra. They came to a place with no roads, towns or electricity, and brutal winters. Now giant machines screw into the permafrost, moving and sifting tons of rock 24 hours a day.

The territorial government is cheering them on. "Diamond mining is critical for us," Brendan Bell, the local minister of industry, said from the capital, Yellowknife. "We don't want to be a one-trick pony. But if you have to be reliant on one industry, diamonds are perfect."

In 2005, even before the Jericho mine opened in the adjoining territory of Nunavut, Canada's first two big diamond mines in the Northwest Territories unearthed 15 pounds of the gemstones, worth $4 million, each day.

At the Diavik Diamond Mine site here, Justin Wedawin, 29, sits in a cab 30 feet above the ground, steering a 240-ton dump truck.

"It's a bit like driving a ship," he said of his huge vehicle. It shudders as an even bigger machine loads it with ore in the dim light at the bottom of the open mine pit. He then begins the slow, 22-minute drive up the circular road carved into the side of the pit.

"When I come out of the pit, it's like going from night to day," he said.

Diavik's engineers have drained part of the lake here, Lac de Gras, diked it with 6 million tons of rock and corkscrewed 500 feet beneath the lake bed. They have built a sprawling complex to house hundreds of workers and an airport to get them here, brought machines the size of a house to rework the land, and erected towering structures to crush and sift the rock -- all to find diamonds.

Like most of Diavik's 735 employees, Wedawin works 12-hour shifts for two weeks straight, then goes home for two weeks. His home is in the native community of Rae, 200 miles away. Thirteen air routes serve workers who commute from as far away as Edmonton, 750 miles to the south.

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