The province of Quebec is holding a series of consultations with the Cree of Eeyou Istchee as it prepares a report on whether to approve the James Bay lithium mine.
The federal government, which approved the mine on Jan. 16, says it’s ready to make the mine part of their Critical Minerals Strategy – but some Cree community members are concerned about how the mine will transform their ancestral territory.
The mining project, spearheaded by Australia-based Allkem-Galaxy Resources Ltd and approved by Canada on Jan. 16, has an estimated mine life of 15 to 20 years and is expected to produce on average 5,480 tonnes of ore per day.
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The 271 conditions attached include mandating that Allkem-Galaxy continue to collaborate with the Cree Health Board and trappers, monitor wildlife populations, treat mining water tailings and develop a program to make sure Cree have continued access to wild game.
The mine site is set to be located about ten kms south of the Eastmain River and 100 kms east of the Cree community of Eastmain in northern Quebec.
The James Bay lithium mine is part of the federal government’s $3.8 billion critical minerals strategy to domestically extract minerals, like lithium, that are used in batteries for electric vehicles, laptops, solar panels, wind turbines and other technology.
The strategy dubs these minerals the “building blocks for the green and digital economy.” Currently, China dominates the lithium extraction market.
The James Bay site is the third lithium mine in the Eeyou Istchee James Bay region to receive federal approval, after Nemaska Lithium’s Whabouchi mine and Critical Elements Corporations Rose Lithium-Tantalum project.
But the Quebec government has yet to approve the mine. Its independent environmental and social review body, COMEX (the Environmental and Social Impact Review Committee), has to hold public hearings in affected communities and receive feedback on the project before it can proceed. COMEX was established as part of the 1975 James Bay Agreement to ensure Cree have a say on development on their territories.
On Jan. 24, COMEX and representatives from Allkem-Galaxy listened to concerns brought forth by the Cree of Eastmain at a public hearing in the community.
The Cree from Eastmain asked several questions about how their community will be taken care of by the mining company.
“I’d like to have a history session from Allkem. Is it a successful company? How many successful projects he had? Is there a storyline? Has he messed up his projects? I’d like to know,” said Dennis Moses of Eastmain.
Many also wanted to be reassured the company had enough money to get the project off the ground and ensure they would be able to benefit economically from the region, and that the company would take care of cleanup.
The James Bay lithium mine will cut through tallyman Brian Weapenicappo’s trapline in the ancestral territory of the Cree of Eastmain.
“I have mixed feelings. Yes, I see the potential of economy for this mine, but I also see the downside, what I’m going to lose. The lifestyle. Our tradition,” said Weapenicappo at the hearing.
“This area where the mining project is going to be is one of our key hunting areas, it’s going to be affected.”
Weapenicappo wants to see more income security for hunters so they can get more equipment to continue their lifestyle.
“Every time there’s a project happening in and around the area, for example the hydro, the mining, the hunters are the ones who are the most affected and they’re the least taken care of.”
Weapnicappo assisted Allkem-Galaxy in doing an inventory of wildlife in the area. Denis Couture, the head of Allkem-Galaxy’s Canadian operations, said he’d continue to update that in collaboration with the Cree.
Consultations and studies in collaboration with the Cree nation have been underway for the past five years, said Couture.
This incorporated wildlife inventories in collaboration with tallymen, including Weapenicappo.
The Cree Nation government has also been supportive of mining on the territory, citing, along with Couture, the promise of jobs and revenue for the territory.
But lithium mines can pose health and environmental risks, like air pollution, destruction of wildlife habitat, and toxic tailings, as outlined in the federal environmental assessment report.
In the 279 page assessment, the authors outlined a number of concerns including, “Effects on fish and fish habitat resulting from the harmful alteration, disruption or destruction of habitat, particularly due to the gradual drying up of Kapisikama Lake, hydrological changes to the watercourses and changes in water quality,” the assessment said and added, “Effects on the wetlands due to their destruction or disturbance, caused by the development of mine infrastructure and the drawdown of the water table.”
In the end, the environment assessment said with the addition of the mandatory conditions, it was approved.
“The Committee concludes that the Project is unlikely to lead to significant adverse environmental effects, given the implementation of the key mitigation measures,” said the report.
Concerns voiced at the public hearing echoed those of Ernie Moses, a tallyman whose trapline will be destroyed by the neighbouring upcoming Rose-Lithium mine.
At the public hearing on Jan. 24, he said he “didn’t fully support” the James Bay ithium mine and wants to make sure the community oversees the project.
Couture promised that the company will continue the environmental and health monitoring process alongside trappers and the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay.
“Rehabilitation money to close [the mine] will be put to the side right at the construction If something happens five years, 10 years after, that money will be put in a bank account, and we cannot do anything with this, even I can’t. Even if we go bankrupt, we can’t touch that money. So the government will take that money and do the work,” said Couture.
But Charles Esau, a cultural teacher with the Cree Health Board said it’s too early to tell what the long-term impacts will be.
“Tailings and all that stuff that gets into the water systems, once it starts to get into that system, then we’re, I have a concern,” said Esau. “I’d be really concerned about the plant life, the animal life (32), everything that we have in our Indigenous life.”
Crees have until Feb. 27, 2023 to send questions and concerns about the James Bay lithium mine.