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Critics raise questions over mining project consultation process

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 29, 2022

Resource extraction was a hot topic at last year’s Annual General Assembly, with expressing concerns about the cost of development in the territory. With every impact benefit agreement (IBA) it seems there are some who realize greater benefits and some who feel more of the impact. 

Construction is to begin this summer on the Rose Lithium-Tantalum open-pit mine in Eastmain’s territory. Chief Kenneth Cheezo celebrated the 2019 Pikhuutaau Agreement – the first mining project IBA signed by Eastmain – for giving the community a role in the decision-making process.

“This partnership will endure because it was built on trust and respect,” declared former Grand Chief Abel Bosum at the time. “It is another vibrant example of how the Crees can strike the right balance between protection of our traditional way of life and environment and our growing need to participate in the modern economy.” 

Besides undisclosed financial compensation, the agreement provides for Cree training, employment and business opportunities, and Cree involvement during all phases of environmental monitoring. Built by Critical Elements Lithium Corporation, the mine is expected to produce about 4,500 tonnes of ore daily for 17 years, creating 300 jobs at peak production. 

While Environment Canada determined the project isn’t likely to cause significant destruction if mitigation measures are followed, two lakes will be drained.

Meanwhile, tallyman Ernie Moses will lose much of his trapline’s land for 30 years. Moses was shocked to learn about this during a virtual consultation held by the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada. 

“It’s like I’m selling the details of the territory but it’s not me who decides – it’s you,” said the 64-year-old Moses at the virtual meeting last April. 

Moses unfortunately lost phone signal on his trapline before the Nation could connect with him for an interview. But Pakesso Mukash remembers that consultation in his role as Cree translator because Moses was “so passionate and well-spoken in Cree.” 

“He was holding the presentation in his hand, basically crushing it, and he said, ‘Nobody told me this,’” Mukash recalled. “‘You, the leaders, and you, the lawyers, you never speak for us and when we come and it’s time for us to speak, you push us aside.’ And he was just sick of it.”

Moses has been forced to adapt to development before – from another mining project along with the Eastmain-1 hydroelectric dam, which flooded over 600 square kilometres shortly after the Paix des Braves agreement was signed in 2002. However, when Mukash visited him in his election campaign for Grand Chief last summer, Moses seemed particularly shaken.

“Within five minutes he’s got tears flowing from his eyes talking about his trapline, all the memories and all the damage he’d seen,” explained Mukash. “I spent hours with him telling me stories about what that trapline means to him. That’s one of his best hunting grounds and all he was worried about was how was he going to teach his kids and grandchildren how to hunt in that area.”

While he still has the land, Moses has been passing along traditional knowledge like beaver trapping learned from his grandmother Eliza to his 17-year-old grandson Winston. With no choice but to accept this development, Moses may have access to contracts. He has already participated in conducting a beaver inventory by helicopter with a biologist from the mining company. 

“I don’t want anything to do with it,” Moses told APTN. “It really hurts. I don’t know what else to say other than it’s only my trapline I’m thinking about. I don’t think I’m going to win this one for my family – it’s for the community here.”

Although lithium powers electric vehicle batteries that help fight climate change, its extraction often raises environmental concerns. Critical Elements claims to follow industry best practices in tailings management by recirculating processed water and treating water before it’s released. Results of regular monitoring are to be shared with tallymen and the consultation committee. 

Environment Canada issued 221 legally binding conditions regarding wildlife protection, including capturing a portion of fish before lakes are drained and building a sturgeon spawning ground on Eastmain River. While the company agreed to reduce blasting during hunting seasons and reduce night transport to avoid collisions, the community expressed concerns about and average of 22 trucks passing each day during operations. 

“The main concern was that 90-tonne trucks were going to pass every 20 minutes,” said Mukash. “People are going to end up in head-on collisions. That was a big concern for noise pollution, animals getting run over. One family has their cabin not far from the gravel road – a truck is going to kick up dust and ruin their air quality.”

Despite consultations in Eastmain, Nemaska, Waskaganish and Waswanipi, the virtual sessions held just before Goose Break were sparsely attended. 

“If there’s only eight people here, do you tell the government the feedback is enough to speak for the entire Nation?” Mukash asked. “Those eight people overrule the one trapper who does not agree with what’s happening. There’s no way I would say those consultations were satisfactory to the answers our people wanted.”

The consultations provide little opportunity for debate or to fact-check prepared responses. With concerns about individual developments kept localized, Mukash says Quebec and the resource industry are gradually dividing and conquering the Cree Nation.  

“It’s just take what you want and tell everybody it’s a beautiful agreement,” Mukash asserted. “I know for a fact that the CNG look at our trappers as a bad investment. Nobody is speaking for them. They say they are, but I’ve not seen any sense of respect or understanding.”

Neither Critical Elements nor Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty responded to requests for comment.

Mukash was the candidate most critical of the Grande Alliance when running for Grand Chief last summer, which he said was inspired by the many stories that trappers have told him. When a proposed railway and other development cuts through the territory, he wonders if anyone will listen to people like Ernie Moses.

“I try to remind the new generations when they go off to university and everything is paid for, a trapper paid for that with their sacrifice,” said Mukash. 

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.