On Wednesday, June 7, Quebec’s Superior Court rejected mining company Copper One's appeal of a Quebec government decision to deny the company a deforestation permit needed to begin exploratory work in La Vérendrye wildlife reserve.
Copper One wants the permit in order to expand existing roads to transport equipment. The company may appeal, but the Quebec Mining Act allows exploratory work to be done without permits, or even notification for affected Indigenous communities. In a Feb. 6 press release the company suggested it could proceed without the deforestation permit by using helicopters to access the park, which is part of the territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake.
“We’re not going to allow this company to move into our territory. We’re going to block them. Block the roads. We just want to challenge the Quebec mining act, and we’ll go from there,” said ABL Band Councillor Norman Matchewan.
ABL is an Algonquin community of roughly 400 people living on a 24-hectare reserve in Quebec. For decades the impoverished community has been wrestling with the provincial and federal governments, Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada and corporations such as Resolute Forest Products and, now, Copper One. The community wants the 1991 Trilateral Agreement with the governments of Quebec and Canada implemented, including environmental protections, sustainable development, co-management of the territory, and resource revenue sharing.
Hailed as a “model of co-existence” by the United Nations, the co-management deal gives the Algonquins of Barriere Lake a decisive say over resource development projects in their territory and a modest share of resource revenues.
The governments of Quebec and Canada, INAC and resource extraction corporations want full access to the lumber and minerals in the area with no interference from the First Nation. Neither Barriere Lake nor any Algonquin community has ever ceded or surrendered any part of their territory.
The Quebec Mining Act
At the centre of the current struggle is the Quebec Mining Act, a piece of legislation that institutionalized the free entry system, whereby any miner can claim any land in Quebec. Under the free entry system, a miner or mining corporation not only gets the mineral rights they have claimed, but also the right to access the surface and conduct exploration work.
ABL Elder Michel Thusky spoke to Ricochet in December at the land defence camp the community built to block the mining company’s access to their land.
“We question the Mining Act. It’s unconstitutional because when the decision came down on Tsilhqot'in it clearly stated that the community needed to be consulted right at the very beginning stage of any development that will have an impact on a First Nation … and Quebec is totally ignoring this,” Elder Thusky said.
Mining legislation in Canada, including Quebec, dates back to the early colonial laws of the late 19th century. At that time, authorities were forced to accept the miners’ rules about mining, such as the free entry system, which were adopted into law. The miners had no respect for the rights of the Indigenous people, and Canadian courts did not take Indigenous rights seriously.
“The Quebec Mining Act is outdated when it comes to respecting Indigenous rights to prior information, prior consultation, [and] accommodation,” said Ugo Lapointe, a spokesperson for MiningWatch Canada.
Barriere Lake isn’t the only First Nation in Quebec opposed to the Quebec Mining Act.
On Jan. 26, the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador, which represents 43 First Nations, issued a press release stating their support for Algonquin opposition to the Mining Act.
“The Quebec Mining Act is a failure. It does not respect the duty to consult. Recourse to the courts seems to be, once again, the only option to force this government to respect its duty to consult,” said Ghislain Picard, chief of the Assembly of First Nations of Quebec and Labrador.
Impacts of mining
ABL community members still live off the land, and the proposed mine would have dire impacts on their survival and culture.
According to an article by Kelly Rose Pflug-Back and Ena͞emaehkiw Kesīqnaeh in Briarpatch, other Indigenous communities with nearby mines have seen rates of alcoholism, suicide and domestic violence rise significantly.
“Mining exploration and mining extraction affects indigenous lands in a major way,” explained MiningWatch’s Lapointe.
Elder Thusky told Ricochet he doesn’t want history to repeat itself, referring to his experience as a residential school survivor. He is afraid that the mine will damage the area so badly that children will no longer be able to practise their culture.
There’s another way that history is trying to repeat itself. In the initial phase of settlement, Algonquin people were pushed to the margins of their territory, away from the lands that the European settlers stole. Today ABL and other Indigenous communities are once again being pushed out of the way of settler encroachment, this time by resource extraction corporations that covet the resource-rich areas where these communities are located.
ABL Fights Back
Over the 25 years that they have been fighting to defend themselves, their way of life and their territory, the ABL have succeeded in negotiating an innovative land management plan — the Trilateral Agreement — and in bringing a reluctant provincial government back to the negotiating table to implement it.
They are asking for financial support to pay their lawyers, and allow community members to attend court.
Elder Thusky was blunt about the community’s prospects if the mine is built.
“It’s going to bury our identity, which is still very much alive.”