For nearly seven months, a group of Algonquins from Barriere Lake has been living in a camp that blocks access to a mining claim by Copper One. The Toronto-based company wants to clear a road in the forest and begin exploratory drilling near the Algonquin reserve.
But after encountering resistance in the woods last October, the company saw its claim suspended by the Quebec government. Copper One’s lawyers will be in a Montreal courtroom Friday in hopes of getting their operation back on track.
On Thursday, Matchewan and about 20 others gathered downtown to protest the mining exploration.
The claim spans 600 square kilometres, much of which is in the Algonquins’ traditional hunting grounds. Barriere Lake is over 380 kilometres north of Montreal, and its residents still live off the meat, fish and fowl harvested from the wilderness in La Vérendrye wildlife reserve.
“Any form of mining is unacceptable to us,” Matchewan said. “The claim is right on the Ottawa River watershed, and we don’t want it to contaminate our lakes and rivers.”
He says he fears the effect mining might have on the moose, wolves, bears and fish on his ancestral hunting grounds.
“That’s what we live off,” Matchewan told the Montreal Gazette. “We continue to hunt, trap, and this is what keeps us going. This is life for us.”
Copper One CEO Scott Moore says he has offered to sit down with community members and discuss the benefits of working together.
“We’ve been trying to negotiate with them since 2011,” Moore said. “It’s so early, it’s not even funny. It hasn’t even been drilled yet. … We’re not even drilling in (La Vérendrye). Of course we’re sympathetic to risks this might pose to (hunting and fishing). We want to minimize our impact on the environment.”
Most of the 700 people in Barriere Lake struggle with poverty, and locals say they’re in the midst of a housing crisis, living in crowded shacks deep in the bush. The community has lost swaths of traditional territory to the logging industry, and many of its trap lines were flooded decades ago to make way for the hydroelectric dams that power Quebec’s cities.
Despite the role its territory plays in generating electricity, the reserve isn’t connected to the power grid. It draws electricity from costly and unreliable diesel generators and, unlike the James Bay Cree, does not benefit from revenue-sharing with Hydro-Québec.
This appears to have fostered a sense of outrage within Barriere Lake, which has a tradition of resisting resource exploitation on the territory. In past years, the community set up blockades on Highway 117, and its members occupied a commercial logging camp on their territory in 2008. That action ended when the Sûreté du Québec sent riot police to the reserve wielding tear gas and batons.
Matchewan says this protest is about preserving what little the community has left — its traditions, culture and language. He claims the government needs the Algonquins’ consent before allowing the mining exploration to resume.
Though Section 35 of the Constitution Act affirms the right of First Nations to be consulted before any resource exploitation that affects their traditional land, indigenous governments do not get to veto these projects.
“They have a right to be consulted and we’re all for that, but they don’t get to just shut it down because they don’t agree with it,” said Moore. “The Cree, the Pessamit, the Innu have all worked with industry in the past and benefited. … Mining companies execute agreements with First Nation governments all the time.”
Thursday’s protest came two days after another Quebec Algonquin community signed a deal with RNC Minerals that could pave the way for nickel mining near their territory, just north of Amos. Chiefs with the Abitibiwinni First Nation told the Montreal Gazette they’ve received assurances that RNC Minerals will work with them to establish environmental safeguards.
And in a community where unemployment and poverty far surpass provincial averages, the potential for jobs and mining royalties is a hard one to pass up, said Abitibiwinni Chief David Kistabish.
But for Matchewan, the risks of an environmental disaster just aren’t worth it.
“To us, this is about preserving a way of life,” he says. “We can’t play around with that.”