Diamonds in Canada

Diamond exploration is not new in Canada, but there was nothing of commercial value until major diamond- bearing kimberlites were discovered at Lac de Gras in the Northwest Territories (NWT) in 1991. Lac de Gras lies above the tree line, in the so-called ‘Barren Lands’, where winters are long and where the land is slow to reveal its secrets. The discovery of diamonds set off the largest staking rush in Canadian history, and brought some of the world’s largest mining companies into the area.

More than 20 economically viable diamond bearing kimberlites have since been discovered in the NWT, and other finds have been made in Alberta, Manitoba, Nunavut, Ontario, Quebec and Saskatchewan. By 2015 Canada was exporting almost $2 billion worth of high quality rough diamonds, making it the third largest producer in the world after Russia and Botswana.

Ekati diamond mine

Ekati: Canada’s First Diamond Mine

The Ekati Diamond Mine, Canada’s first, is located on the Arctic tundra near Lac de Gras, or Ekati as the lake is called by the Dene people, 200 km south of the Arctic Circle and 300 km northeast of Yellowknife. There are no settlements in the area and the mine is serviced by air, and by an ice road which is only open for ten to twelve weeks during the winter.

The process from the discovery of diamonds at Lac de Gras in 1991, to the official opening of the Ekati Mine in 1998 was complex. It involved negotiations with the Federal Government of Canada, the Government of the Northwest Territories, and with the aboriginal people living in the impact area of the mine, a vast expanse which stretches from Yellowknife in the south to the Arctic Ocean in the north. Important licences included those dealing with fisheries, water regulation and land use. The Environmental Impact Statement, submitted to an Environmental Assessment Review Panel, consisted of eight volumes and weighed 64 pounds. All licenses and approvals were finalized in January 1997, and following 18 months of camp construction, production began in October 1998. Ekati began as a joint venture between BHP Diamonds Inc. and other investors; since 2013, Dominion Diamond Corporation has operated the mine and owned a controlling interest

Snap Lake mine map

Other Diamond Mines

The Diavik project consists of four kimberlite pipes just off an island in Lac de Gras. Rio Tinto Diamonds operates the mine and owns 60 per cent; Dominion Diamonds owns 40 per cent. Diavik is Canada’s largest diamond mine in terms of carat production and is expected to operate until 2023.

The Snap Lake Mine 220 km northeast of Yellowknife was De Beers’ first diamond mine outside of Africa. Construction began in 2005, with costs estimated at US$1.8 billion. The mine began operations in 2008 but it was mothballed in 2015 and was offered for sale in 2016.

De Beers’ second Canadian operation is the Victor Mine, 90 km west of Attawapiskat in northern Ontario. The Victor Mine is one of 18 kimberlite pipes discovered on the property, 16 of which are diamondiferous. De Beers reports that approximately $1 billion was spent on construction of the mine, with approximately C$167 million spent with Aboriginal businesses or joint venture partners. 

De Beers’ third Canadian operation, Gacho Kué, in partnership with Mountain Province Diamonds, is located at Kennady Lake, 80 km southeast of Snap Lake. The capital cost has been estimated at C $1 billion, with start-up late in 2016. As part of its social license, De Beers signed Impact Benefit Agreements with six First Nation bands.

The Jericho Mine in Nunavut, 420 km northeast of Yellowknife, opened in 2006 but closed two years later when the owner, Tahera Diamond Corporation reported financial losses. Diamonds have also been discovered on Baffin Island. The Chidliak project, owned by Peregrine Diamonds, is still in its preliminary stages.

Canadian Certified Diamonds

The Government of the Northwest Territories operates a program guaranteeing that a Government Certified Canadian DiamondTM is 100 per cent Canadian in origin, and was mined, cut and polished in Canada’s Northwest Territories. The program, which is the first of its kind to monitor diamonds from mine to market, is administered by the Territory’s Department of Industry, Tourism and Investment. Established in order to encourage a cutting and polishing industry in Canada’s north, the program has faced numerous challenges and the failure of several investments. Currently available brand names include Canadian Eskimo Diamonds, Arcticmark Diamonds, Canadamark Diamonds, Polar Ice Diamonds and others.

Canada and the Kimberley Process

Canada was a leader in the creation of the Kimberley Process Certification Scheme (KPCS). The Canadian government also played a key role as chair of the Angola Sanctions Committee, helping to expose the role of diamonds in that country’s civil war. Partnership Africa Canada (PAC) issued its first report on conflict diamonds in January 2000, and was instrumental in the creation of the KPCS. Since its foundation in 2008, DDI has been a key player in the KP, leading discussions and policy development in its Working Group on Artisanal Alluvial Diamonds, among other contributions.