As mining has continued to expand across the Cree territories, questions remain over the reclamation and remediation of ongoing and abandoned mining sites.
The history of mining across the Cree territories resembles the history across the country at large, where regulations and cleanup were minimal until into the 1980s and 1990s. In Quebec, prior to the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) of 1975, reclamation requirements were nearly non-existent, according to an article by academic Anne Dance.
“For a long time, traditionally nothing was done about these sites. Mines opened and closed, and companies walked away,” said Arn Keeling, a professor in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland.
It was only after the JBNQA that the Quebec government required mining companies to post securities to pay for remediation and to report on exploration, but that wasn’t enough, according to Dance. Waswanipi fought to clean up abandoned mines in the 1990s, pushing for monitoring of wet tailings and closing of open mining shafts, but budget limitations at the time prevented further work.
Representatives of the Cree Nation Government did not respond to a request for comment.
Some of the dangers of abandoned and closed mines include leaching of heavy metals, wildlife habitat loss, polluted waters, disruption of migratory wildlife routes and food sources, as well as long-term social strains on communities.
According to Keeling, only in the 1980s did mine closure legislation require environmental stabilization methods that included removing physical hazards for people and animals, controlling toxins from underground mines or tailings, and trying to prevent acid mine drainage from impacting natural waterways and harming wildlife.
“With underground mines you have to deal with physical stability, you don’t want them to collapse or people getting into old mines or material to leak out of them,” Keeling explained. One solution can involve filling these mines back with tailings and waste rocks, or burying them, and ensuring that they can be made stable.
Otherwise, reclamation and remediation may deal with contaminated soils, mining roads and other built-up infrastructure.
“It’s a question of how much, if any, of the original surface environment can be restored. Often, it’s not much because of the nature of the disturbance,” Keeling observed. Over the long-term, reclamation requires environmental monitoring that can last years after a mine is shut down, particularly since acidic rocks have the potential to contaminate water bodies for decades.
However, as reclamation has advanced, it has come to include discussion of social and economic impacts to local communities. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of these discussions through impact benefit agreements and related negotiations.
Keeling says that recently there is more interest in how land-using communities like Indigenous groups will be impacted, from the effects of harvesting and travel to considerations like economic dependency.
“There’s a long history of the problems that happen when these communities shut down,” Keeling said of mining settlements that spring up to support mining operations particularly in the North. Even when mines are close to existing communities, there’s still an economic impact on people who depended on the income provided by mines.
Keeling urges Indigenous communities to plan for mine closures from “day one,” rather than when a mine begins to wind down. “When communities are at the table, different questions are asked about mining and the whole process,” Keeling insisted. This is when communities can identify their preferences for what the post-mine future will look like.
As an example, Keeling points to requirements for road removal, where a community may prefer to retain the new routes.
Keeling also observes that reclamation is a multi-million-dollar process that can take years. Indigenous communities may want to be involved by developing reclamation expertise and taking on those jobs.
“If communities don’t think about closure, then maybe they aren’t asking all the questions they need to,” Keeling pointed out. “Dealing with long-term impacts may seem doable at first, but if you have to treat water for decades, who is going to pay for that?”
Keeling points to the Raglan mine in Nunavik, which began its Closure Plan Subcommittee in 2018, even though the mine was not scheduled to close for 20 years. There, the subcommittee was formed in partnership with Glencore, the mine operators, as well as the nearby Inuit villages of Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq and the Makivik Corporation.
The subcommittee consults with Inuit partners and integrates local traditional knowledge into a closure plan, while also securing mine-reclamation training for locals.
The 2011 Opinagow Collaborative Agreement signed by the Cree Nation Government among other partners governing the Eleonore mine includes provisions to involve and consult Crees to prepare a mining rehabilitation and restoration plan and to involve Crees in rehabilitation and restoration activities.