Three weeks after all non-essential businesses ceased operating in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Quebec government announced April 13 that mining activities – many of which are in First Nations territories – would gradually resume. The decision met with immediate opposition from Indigenous leaders.
“Quebec’s decision to allow the resumption of mining operations in a hurry is dangerously compromising the efforts made by our communities,” stated Ghislain Picard, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL). “In the face of COVID-19, our leaders prioritize the health and safety of our members above everything else, even the economy. The pandemic does not exempt governments from their duty to consult.”
To reduce fly-in/fly-out travel, companies will have to transport workers with chartered buses and planes and double work-site time to 28 days. Despite these and other safety precautions, leaders are worried about the possibility of workers from the south spreading the virus to vulnerable communities.
Grand Chief Abel Bosum expressed concerns about Quebec’s lack of transparency and the potential for Cree workers at the mines returning to their communities. He was reassured by the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources and the three mines currently operating in Eeyou Istchee that they won’t reopen without close Cree collaboration and consent.
“We’re assessing mine by mine so whenever they come up with their management plan then we’ll work in collaboration with them to make sure it’s adapted to what’s needed in the territory,” explained Melissa Saganash, director of Cree-Quebec relations. “And, to protect our local health system and make sure that proper guidelines are in place at the mine so there’s no added pressure to the local community.”
At this point, only mines in operation can consider reopening, not those in the exploration phase. Saganash noted that no activities will resume until after the coming Goose Break. Nemaska Lithium and Stornoway Diamonds have already announced that they have no intentions of restarting mining activities soon.
“This decision does not change anything for Nemaska Lithium at the moment because the Whabouchi mine has been in care and maintenance since the end of last year,” company spokesperson Gabrielle Tellier said via email. “We are continuing those minimal activities with a small crew at the site. At the same time, we are pursuing our restructuring efforts with our financial and legal advisers.”
Stornoway, which operated normally until March 24, stated that the pandemic caused diamond prices and their entire marketing chain to collapse. While care and maintenance activities will continue at the Renard site, the suspension of operations impacted nearly 540 workers.
“We will continue to monitor the market conditions for improvements, which would allow for a restart of mining activities,” CEO Patrick Godin said in a press release. “The diamond market has proven over time to be resilient and prices have recovered following economic downturns.”
While the pandemic has upended some markets, gold prices recently hit a seven-year peak as investors often turn to gold in times of uncertainty. That’s good news for the Eleonore mine 200 kilometres south-east of Wemindji.
“Eleonore is probably the one that’s most advanced in its management plan,” said Saganash. “This one has been in close collaboration. Again, it’s the safety of the workers, the safety of the community and the insistence that we must protect our local health system. It has to be done in a way that is in collaboration with the Cree Nation, with the community.”
In Nunavik, Makivik Corporation President Charlie Watt felt insulted by the province’s unilateral decision. Makivik is considering legal action if satisfactory discussions with the premier don’t occur.
“We are very concerned about the spread of the coronavirus as a result of reopening the mines,” Watt stated. “We don’t believe the conditions will completely protect the Inuit population from coming in contact with potentially infected people returning to the region.”
Nunavik’s health department is only allowing workers from the south into the mines, provided they don’t have contact with local communities. The Raglan mine, located between Salluit and Kangiqsujuaq, has restarted operations with about half its usual staff. It plans to launch on-site testing for COVID-19 with stringent precautionary measures and the ability to swiftly contact trace, isolate and evacuate if required.
But opponents of hasty decisions like these say governments are putting profits over public health. British Columbia’s former Chief Medical Officer for Northern Health, David Bowering, has compared industrial work camps to “land-locked cruise ships” that can become “COVID-19 incubators” that expose both workers and local communities to unnecessary risk.
The Cree Nation intends to proceed cautiously with the reopening of mines in Eeyou Istchee.
“If they do go ahead, it is because they have cleared a number of criteria that are above and beyond what we find is acceptable,” said Melissa Saganash. “Of course, we have collaboration with the health board, just to make sure they’re comfortable with it too.”