Film Review: Guardians of Eternity

"Giant Mine, Yellowknife" by Allan Farrell

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Guardians of Eternity: Confronting Giant Mine’s Toxic Legacy. Directed by France Benoit. Sheba Films, 2015. 45 minutes. English and French versions.

Reviewed by Jim Clifford, Department of History, University of Saskatchewan.

Guardians of Eternity is a feature length film on the toxic legacy of Giant Mine outside of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. The film is a collaboration between Sheba Films and the The Toxic Legacies Project based at Memorial University. It focuses on the current and future efforts to contain huge qualities of water-soluble arsenic trioxide stored underground after five decades of gold mining. Before the mine, this arsenic was in the ground, but not in a water-soluble form; the process of extracting the gold created more than two hundred thousand tons of this deadly waste. When the final owner, Royal Oak Mines, went into receivership in 1999, they left the local population and the government to deal with the toxic waste in the tailings ponds and underground chambers, which are equal in size to about seven and a half ten-story buildings.

The current plan is to freeze the ground around the arsenic chambers to prevent it from spreading into the ground water. This is not a remediation plan, where the toxic waste is eventually rendered harmless. It is a stabilization plan that requires ongoing maintenance. Similar to nuclear waste storage sites, the vast qualities of arsenic will remain hazardous for an indefinite period of time.

The film focuses on this history, along with the current situation and efforts to use oral traditions to communicate the hazards to generations thousands of years in the future. Archival footage helps to explain the industrial process and documents confirm the death of a child back in the early 1950s, during the first few years when the arsenic trioxide went up the smoke stack. The film does not focus on the business history, as the ownership passed from Falconbridge to Pamour of Australia and finally to Royal Oak, removing an opportunity to connect this mine to a wider history of corporate environmental irresponsibility in extractive industries during the second half of the twentieth century.

The film itself is a relatively standard feature documentary with talking-head interviews with activists, experts and members of the Yellowknives Dené First Nation. It is at its best when they follow Fred Sangris, a former Chief of the Yellowknives Dene First Nations (N’dilo) and land claim negotiator, into the mine as he inspects the test refrigeration units.  His community, as you can see in the map below, live in close proximity to the mine and worry about a catastrophic release. Sangris expresses relief when he sees the test system actually working as promised, but remains anxious until the whole system is operational.

Mary-Rose Sundberg, the director of the Goyatiko Language Society in Dettah, is another powerful onscreen presence, particularly in the opening scene of the film, as she paces outside of the Giant Mine gate and ruminates on what it means to be the guardians of eternity. The footage of activists and experts is a little less dynamic and is presented in a very familiar documentary interview format. However, the story of the Giant Mine and its toxic legacy is powerful enough to overcome the limits of the medium.

After establishing the history of the problem and the current solution, the film pivots to consider the future and the possible challenges of maintaining the cooling equipment and knowledge of the danger forever. Nuclear waste sites have installed physical monuments designed to convey danger to people without relying on language. The Toxic Legacies project team, led by Arn Keeling and John Sandlos, in collaboration with Sundberg and other members of the Yellowknives, are discussing the value of oral traditions and stories to embed an awareness of the dangers of this location in the local culture. They hope this approach will provide an additional means to ensure the safety of future generations. The final fifteen minutes of the film focus on this problem and provide a lot of time for the viewer to consider its scale. How do we communicate with people ten thousand years in the future?

At forty-five minutes, this film is an ideal classroom resource and I showed it to my first year students in a class called Environmental Disasters in History this past week. On Tuesday we discussed Bhopal and on Thursday we watched this film, which provided a stark contrast between a short-term disaster with medium-term consequences and the very long-term problem of Giant Mine. Two students emailed me with their reactions:

Kale Yuzik: “The film Guardians of Eternity brought this issue of grave, national importance to my attention. While I was watching this documentary, I found myself wondering ‘Why was not aware of this?’ and ‘Why are these national issues not taught in grade schools across the country?’ A large concern of the peoples of Yellowknife is how to perpetuate this knowledge to future generations, but what about present generations elsewhere in the country? We all bear the financial responsibility of paying for the damage control efforts, therefore this is a lesson we should all learn from.”

Sydney Sperrer: “The movie made me very mad and sad for the poor Dené people that are having to deal with this, and the fact that this mine was allowed year after year to do this to our land. I never knew that this had happened to these people, and it’s sad that not many Canadians know that this very deadly thing is there.”

As we watched the film in class, it appeared to hold the attention of the vast majority of the students and I will continue to use it in the years to come. I would recommend other environmental historians order copies and I hope the production team might share it on YouTube to make it easier for teachers to bring it to the classroom (finding a DVD player is becoming harder and harder).

This is a very good film focused on one of Canada’s largest and most expensive environmental disasters. It gives members of the Yellowknives a voice and highlights this very Canadian example of environmental injustice. My only real criticism is that I would have liked to see more discussion of who benefited from the vast wealth extracted from the ground and why the government failed to adequately regulate the mining corporations. At times the film slipped into tropes of workers benefiting at the expense of the environment and the Yellowknives. I am sure this is a local dynamic with the history of the city of Yellowknife closely associated with the growth of Giant Mine. But, executives and shareholders in Toronto or Sydney extracted much of the profit from 1.1 billion dollars in gold and they have avoided responsibility, leaving the Canadian government to pay nearly a billion dollars to freeze the ground and stabilize the waste. Histories of Bhopal focus extensively on Union Carbide, and the development of the Chisso Corporation is essential to understanding the Minamata disaster. Guardians of Eternity ended with me wanting to know who to blame and why they got away with it.

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Jim Clifford is an associate professor of environmental history at the University of Saskatchewan. He published West Ham and the River Lea: A Social and Environmental History of London’s Industrialized Marshland, 1839–1914 with the UBC Press in 2017.

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