Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) grand chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer and her wife Tami Jo Rice were paid to promote Birks, a jewellery company whose diamonds partly originate from mines said to have harmful effects on Indigenous communities in Canada.
At the September 18 meeting of Council, Sky-Deer made arrangements to donate $1,000, the amount she says she was compensated for her appearance in the social media campaign. However, this does not include Rice’s portion of the money, an amount the grand chief did not confirm in an interview with The Eastern Door.
Sky-Deer did not seek out the spot; she was approached to do it by the photography company that was hired to produce the “People of Birks” campaign, she said. The shoot was done in May and posted by Birks on August 4.
“I was thinking of things through a positive lens,” said Sky-Deer, explaining she thought it sounded like a great opportunity to share a story about love. The campaign highlighted diversity, and she believes the representation of LGBTQ2S+ was an important reason she and her wife were selected.
“I said, ‘Sure. Sounds like a fun thing to do, you know, be out there and promote the brand,” explaining that at first she did not necessarily see it as an extension of her political position, something she later clarified in discussions at the MCK.
Sky-Deer and her wife, who have been together for 16 years and married for five, wear Birks wedding rings, which seemed to make them an ideal fit. These details formed the basis of the social media text, which identified Sky-Deer as the grand chief of Kahnawake.
“I didn’t think that they were doing it to like, oh, ‘let’s put a First Nations person out there so that we can sell more diamonds.’ No, it was about a love story,” said Sky-Deer. “Everybody in the community has diamonds, I’m sure, when they get married. You don’t think ‘oh my god, where did these diamonds come from?’”
Sky-Deer acknowledged she did not consider or explore the possibility that the company’s practices could be harming Indigenous communities.
“I guess maybe it was an error on my part to not really look into what I was putting myself as a representation,” she said. However, when The Eastern Door clarified to her that Birks does not mine diamonds, but rather purchases and markets diamonds, Sky-Deer suggested this information might have changed some of her responses because she perceived this to be a substantive difference.
“Birks’ jewellery has always been synonymous with family, love, and connection,” said Thalia Policicchio, a spokesperson representing Birks, in explaining the company’s interest in the grand chief. “Birks was inspired by (grand) chief Kahsennenhawe Sky-Deer and her wife Tami Jo’s love story and commitment to their community.”
The campaign is only one example of Birks’ public relations efforts to project a friendly face. Diamonds have come under fire in the past two decades as the public has become more aware of conflict diamonds, which are largely mined in African war zones and used to fund nefarious purposes – the subject of the 2006 Hollywood film Blood Diamond.
Birks purchases its diamonds according to the Kimberley Process, an internationally recognized certification scheme created in 2002 to prevent conflict diamonds from entering the market. However, the growing awareness of a problematic supply chain has increased the appeal of diamonds mined in Canada, which are located in Indigenous territories, especially the Northwest Territories (NWT).
Being a Canadian company, Birks is well-positioned as a diamond reseller to capitalize on this perception.
“The perfect proposal always begins with a Birks Canadian Diamond, mined with your happiness in mind,” reads a section of Birks’ website pertaining to its use of Canadian diamonds, which it portrays as sustainable and conflict-free – “Ice Pure. Traceable. Canadian.” – reflecting values it says aligns with those of Birks’ customers.
Diamond buyers can even use the website to determine the origin of their own Canadian stone. Birks Canadian diamonds typically come from the Diavik and Ekati mines in the NWT, according to Policicchio.
“Birks Group is committed to ensuring that all aspects of our business reflect the highest standards of conduct,” said Policicchio, emphasizing the company’s adherence to the Kimberley Process.
“There’s this idea that Canadian diamonds are exceptional, and it’s not an idea that came from nowhere,” said Rebecca Hall, an assistant professor at Queen’s University who has worked with northern Indigenous communities and wrote a book, Refracted Economies on the impacts of the industry, based on research she did in partnership with the Native Women’s Association of the Northwest Territories.
Diamond companies and the governments of Canada and the NWT have leaned into a perception that Canada is ethical and so, therefore, are its diamonds – a message that helps the stones fetch a higher price. However, this strategy belies a more complicated reality.
“In my own research, I really situate Canadian diamond mines in the context of ongoing dispossession of Indigenous lands,” said Hall. “These diamonds are not pure. They’re not clean. They’re part of these processes of dispossession.”
The diamond-mining operations in the NWT, which take place on Dene land, boast of Indigenous cooperation and of furnishing an economic development benefit, particularly through providing jobs.
“Indigenous employment, I would say, is the biggest thing that they emphasize to show that they’re being responsible,” said Hall.
The mining work is paid well, Hall acknowledged, particularly when there are few lucrative opportunities for workers locally. Many find it preferable to stay in the region when compared to travelling even further for work. But in her research, Hall has observed a destabilizing impact on families because the work requires community members – usually men – to leave their families for long stretches of time.
“What we saw was that this was putting a huge strain on communities that had to re-organize their labour because of all these people that were just not around,” she said.
What’s more, the lion’s share of the economic benefit of the mines has not gone to benefit Indigenous communities. Rather, it has enriched mine owners such as British-Australian corporation Rio Tinto, which owns 100 percent of the Diavik mine.
Hall writes in her book that the government of the NWT estimates that from 2000-2014, diamond mines paid around $90 million in fuel taxes and over $165 million in property taxes to the NWT government in addition to royalties transferred by Canada. Yet, in 2014, the government of Canada noted $1.6 billion in annual export profits from the mines.
Around 10 years ago, a “devolution agreement” was signed and dictated the NWT government would receive 50 percent of resource development royalties – the other half going to Canada – with 25 percent of the NWT share going to Indigenous government signatories.
In 2022, these signatories received $5.6 million in resource revenues, according to the government of the NWT, although the same report notes the spending of $755 million with NWT businesses thanks to the mine.
Regardless of how these numbers are perceived by different leaders and community members, one thing is clear, according to Hall.
“They never had the option of saying no to the diamond mines,” she said.
Donny Morris, longtime chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) in northern Ontario, did say “no” when Platinex Inc. wanted to explore the possibility of a diamond mine on his community’s traditional lands.
In 2006, the company sued KI, a community of about 1,000 people, for $10 billion, but Morris and his fellow council members did not waver.
Then, in 2008, he and five other members of the First Nation’s council were thrown in jail for their resistance, serving more than two months apiece of the six months to which they were sentenced before they were released by the Court of Appeal for Ontario.
“In this day and age, who puts a government into prison?” said Morris in an interview with The Eastern Door. “That was the hardest part on us as chief and council, when we were in jail – leaving our community with no leadership, only relying on our senior staff members to run the community.”
In 2009, Platinex dropped the lawsuit after being paid a $5 million settlement by Ontario.
KI suffers from problems relating to unemployment, Morris said, and he understands why some Indigenous leaders might welcome the mines.
“I am happy for communities to come with agreements that will benefit their membership and their communities,” he said. “But for me, like I said, for them to be touting they have a working relationship with First Nations? I strongly disagree with that.”
Morris, contrary to what one may assume, is eager to welcome a diamond-mining operation onto KI lands.
The caveat? He wants his community to receive 50 percent of the benefits.
So far, there have been no takers.
Grand chief’s role
Sky-Deer said it was always her intention to donate the $1,000 she received from Birks, although she acknowledged she was not initially clear on whether the activity counted as personal or professional.
“It’s very difficult to separate what becomes personal and what’s in my role, because it wasn’t a political thing,” she said.
“No matter where I go, no matter what I do, I’m always the grand chief,” she said. “So based on our policy, the requirement is to donate it to a nonprofit or charitable organization.”
However, she does not believe this applies to her wife. “I’m donating what I have to because I can’t benefit. My wife, it’s her business,” she said. The discussion at Council on her donation only came up this week, she said, because of the abbreviated summer schedule and her scheduled absences.
Sky-Deer indicated there were differing opinions at the Council table when the line between professional and personal was discussed this Monday.
“A lot of what we’ve been working on is firming up our governance documents so that there’s clear lines of what’s okay, what’s not; how do we govern ourselves so everybody is subject to the same rules?”
She said when the opportunity originally came up, no one at the table suggested she should look into the background of Birks or the diamond-mining industry in general. “It never even crossed my mind, to be honest,” she said. “I get so many requests to show up to different events and do all these different things all over.”
She argued that involvement with powerful corporations puts her in a position to influence change, however, and noted her bridge-building approach.
“For me, ever since I got in, this term has been about trying to build relationships, trying to speak from our perspective about things that have happened historically or that are still happening to try to change people’s mindsets.” She brings up Indigenous issues to Rio Tinto, for instance, she said.
“Ultimately, what’s happening in this time, everybody keeps throwing around reconciliation and keeps changing the way they approach issues and relationships with First Nations communities and so forth,” she said. “If this can be my segue and my opportunity to address it, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
For community member Timmy Norton, the advertisement was an error in judgment.
“What I think is that it is very wrong to use a position that she was voted into, by me amongst others, to sell diamonds for a company,” said Norton.
“This is so wrong on many levels. I am once again disappointed in her decision-making process. If she is saying she can do what she wants in her private life – she can’t. You don’t have a private life as grand chief.”
While Sky-Deer acknowledged it may have been a mistake to participate without looking more into the company, she also expressed frustration that something that was intended as a symbol of her love is being used to highlight something negative.
“You know, if the community or these people want me to make a public apology for putting my name to something that has these negative connotations to it, then I’ll do that,” she said. “But like I said, for me, it was something positive that has now been spun and turned into something dirty.”
Sky-Deer’s $1,000 donation will go to the family of the 18-year-old community member who was tragically killed in a car accident on Friday, September 22.
Marcus Bankuti, Local Journalism Initiative reporter
Marcus is managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.