For roughly 25 years, Canada has quietly emerged as one of the world’s leading diamond producers. For a glimpse of modern-day mining, look no further than our neighbor to the north.
A few minutes before 9 A.M., a 44-seat charter plane cuts through a thick layer of fog and lands on an icy airstrip just 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The passengers are arriving for work at the Gahcho Kué Diamond Mine from Yellowknife, the only city in the surrounding Northwest Territories (NWT). The mine is accessible by air or, for about two months of the year, a 310-mile ice road built across frozen lakes that’s used to truck in supplies. The workers quickly deplane and board a yellow school bus that takes them a short ride through a whiteout landscape. A low campus of blue and gray buildings emerges from the haze, and as soon as the bus pulls up, Environmental Officer Kimi Balsillie climbs inside to give the workers on-site safety updates. “Welcome back, and enjoy your visit,” she says before seat belts start unclipping.
Many people think of Africa as the sole source of diamonds, but since the precious gems were discovered in the NWT in the early 1990s, Canada has emerged globally as the third-largest diamond producer. And today, a growing community of Northern female miners reflects a modern industry set in one of the most remote and sublime corners of the world.
“You fly here in the middle of winter, and it’s its own level of beauty. Just knowing where you are in relation to everybody else, you take a deep breath and think to yourself, Wow.”
– Megan Rodel, business improvement superintendent, Gahcho Kué
For eight months out of the year, when temperatures bottom out at 50 below, the Arctic tundra of the NWT is blanketed in snow, lichen-covered rock and little else. But deep beneath the permafrost, embedded in dark columns of igneous rock called kimberlite, diamonds await. Ranging from one- to three-billion-years old, the gems are formed about 100 miles under the Earth’s surface from carbon exposed to extreme pressure and temperatures around 2,000 degrees. By the time volcanic eruptions push them to the planet’s surface, diamonds are the hardest naturally occurring substance known to man.
“If you protect the land, the land will protect you — that’s a common saying when you speak to any elder,” says Balsillie, 31, who grew up in Yellowknife as a Métis, a group descended from First Nations people and early European settlers. When the mines began opening in the late 1990s, strict guidelines were put in place to respect both the land and the indigenous communities. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s necessary,” she says. “We have three golden rules: zero harm, continual improvement and resource compliance.”
Because of its climate and remote nature, the cost of living in the Northwest Territories is high. Balsillie remembers a “low pulse” in Yellowknife during her high school years. “People were moving away. Maybe there were a couple gold mines here and there, and exploration, but it was definitely in a funk,” she says. Her mother, who had moved north for work when she was a young woman, considered leaving. But then, she says, “diamonds were discovered, and that changed everything.” The economy boomed, and the city rebounded.
The diamond mines look to hire as many Northern residents as possible — particularly indigenous peoples — and the local communities have experienced an upswing. After years of earning hourly wages as an office worker in the town of Hay River, Kelly Lafferty-Norn, now 35, also Métis, decided to take an intro-to-mining course. When it came time to driving trucks, she was a natural. In 2012, she joined Diavik Diamond Mine, where she continues to be one of the top haul-truck operators and earns a very competitive salary. “The work is always interesting,” says Lafferty-Norn. “I learn something new just about every rotation.”
Lafferty-Norn is on a “two-and-two” shift, meaning she works a two-weeks-on, two-weeks-off schedule, driving ore from the mine to the processing plant. It’s no longer unusual for women to drive 60-ton haul trucks at the mines, but women, who make up nearly 30 percent of the workforce, have always been critical to the diamond industry: Two female geologists made the first discovery of kimberlite in Russia, and a female geologist discovered the world’s largest known diamond deposit near Lake Argyle in Australia.
Working 12-hour shifts, 14 days straight at a remote site isn’t easy, even with perks like a 24-hour cafeteria, a gym and classes on public speaking or financial planning. But, says Balsillie, “it’s a little family up here, so you’re not just going somewhere and working. You’re not just a number.” And many embrace both the intensity and the freedom of the schedule. Lafferty-Norn, a mother of four, says, “Especially in the summertime, we can just jump in the truck and go wherever we want because we don’t have to worry about going back to work for a week or so.”
The mines operate 24-7, 365 days a year to excavate diamonds. For many workers, the stones are worth more than carats and dollars — they also represent their “diamond dream.” Balsillie says, “It is how you fuel your life with your job.” And it’s allowed workers like Megan Rodel — who started in production mining and is now in charge of optimizing work flows as Gahcho Kué’s business improvement superintendent — greater opportunity. “A lot of people have been here for a while and may not have only been in one job. You can start and be a heavy equipment operator. And then you can get an apprenticeship and become an electrician. You can become a supervisor. You don’t have to look elsewhere for a career.”
“The world feels much bigger and open out on the Arctic tundra,” says Rodel, of her adopted Canadian home. “It’s such a juxtaposition to South Africa.” Rodel grew up and studied mining engineering there, an entirely opposite landscape where diamonds have played an important role for more than a century. “I’ve grown up in the mining industry. And I’ve always wanted to work in diamonds,” she says. “You can’t just replace diamonds from one area with another, because they’re not exactly the same. It’s not like a gold bar, where it doesn’t matter where it comes from. Diamonds are unique. That’s really special.”
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Photography by Kiana Hayeri