A proposed mine near a pristine water source is testing the CAQ's commitment to the environment
Residents, activists, politicians want environment minister to force public hearings into project
The 500 residents of La Motte, Que., don't have have a gas station or even a convenience store, but they do enjoy some of the best-tasting drinking water in North America.
So when an Australian mining firm began seeking approval to build an open-air lithium mine just a stone's throw from the community's water source, reactions were decidedly mixed in the town, located 50 kilometres northwest of Val-d'Or.
Some were eager for the 132 jobs the company, Sayona, is promising to create.
La Motte's town council unanimously passed a motion in July endorsing the project.
Others, though, are concerned about the proposed mine's proximity to the Saint-Mathieu-Berry esker, the 8,000-year-old ridge of stratified sand and gravel that naturally filters rain and snow in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region of northern Quebec.
Residents have struggled to get answers about the environmental risks of a project that would rip a hole — 1,000 metres long, 600 metres wide and 200 metres deep — into the terrain.
However, Sayona has scaled its proposal to avoid triggering a mandatory review by Quebec's environmental assessment agency, known by its French acronym as the BAPE.
Mining projects that produce more than 2,000 tonnes of material daily are required by law to undergo a public consultation process.
Sayona's Authier project in La Motte would produce 1,900 tonnes per day.
The company fears a public review by the BAPE would delay the project, possibly "affecting its profitability and financing opportunities," it said in a document released last month.
A network of activists, residents, Indigenous leaders and provincial politicians is calling on Quebec's environment minister, MarieChantal Chassé, to use her discretionary power to force the project to undergo a BAPE review anyway.
The issue is emerging as a key test of the new Coalition Avenir Québec government's commitment to protecting the environment — and of just how much influence Chassé will wield in an otherwise pro-business cabinet.
"This is the first chance for the Legault government to show that it will develop the economy according to the rules, that is to say, by correctly evaluating [environmental] impacts," said Ugo Lapointe, spokesperson for a coalition that lobbies for more sustainable mining practices.
Water supply among North America's most pristine
The esker is not only a source of pride for Abitibi residents, it is central to their livelihoods.
It supplies drinking water to much of the region.
Amos, 30 kilometres north of La Motte, has twice won awards for having the best tap water in North America.
The esker is also the supply source for Eska, a water-bottling company that employs more than 100 people.
Since the outset of the Authier project, Sayona has argued the mine will not damage the esker. Several studies, paid for by the company, have echoed that opinion.
Moreover, Sayona points out, the esker is protected by bedrock, and it has no intention of removing sand or gravel from the geological formation.
Initially, all of La Motte's elected officials were on board with the mine, which would be located on the outskirts of town. They backed Sayona's efforts to bypass the BAPE review in order to speed up development.
"This would be very profitable for the municipality of La Motte," the town's deputy mayor, Réjean Richard, told Radio-Canada this summer. The company hopes to have the mine operational by 2020.
But the town council moved forward before holding consultations with residents, which left many uneasy.
At the same time, the mayor of Amos called for more studies of the project. Other environmental groups in Abitibi also began demanding a BAPE review.
"At this stage, we're not against the project. We just want more information," said Rodrigue Turgeon, a spokesperson for the Citizens Committee to Protect the Esker.
Residents uneasy about mining project
The company held a series of information sessions in the region over the spring and summer in an effort to build public support for the mine.
The meeting in La Motte in June was tense. Residents grew frustrated when company representatives provided only vague answers to questions about the mine's location.
At the beginning of the meeting, they said it would be "fewer than 500 metres" from the water source. By the end, they acknowledged that parts of the mine could be as close as 75 metres from the esker.
A similar session was held in the Algonquin community of Pikogan a few days later. There, too, many residents expressed concerns about the project.
"Indigenous people are said to be protectors of the land, of natural resources, to ensure that future generations can profit from it," said David Kistabish, chief of the First Nation of Abitibiwinni (Pikogan).
"Yes, we speak about the economy, but not at any price."
Sayona recognizes its project does not enjoy unanimous support, but it's working to increase its social acceptability by stressing the jobs that will be created and the mine's relatively small footprint.
"It will be a small mine. We're talking about a mine valued under $90 million," said Alexis Ségal, vice-president of corporate affairs for Sayona's Quebec subsidiary.
"Building a small mine is the right decision in terms of sustainability."
The controversy over the mine so exhausted La Motte's mayor, Louis-Joseph Fecteau-Lefebvre, that in September he decided to resign.
Though he had once backed the project, Fecteau-Lefebvre came to wonder if the public's environmental concerns weren't being given their due.
"There is a generational question to a certain extent," he told Radio-Canada. "I was raised to feel a certain urgency about the environment."
Pressure mounts on CAQ government
Quebec is currently undergoing a moment of heightened awareness about the importance of addressing climate change.
A growing number of municipalities in the province have passed resolutions in recent weeks acknowledging the climate crisis and the need for immediate action to reduce emissions.
The resolutions are designed, in part, to multiply pressure on both the federal and provincial governments to adopt more ambitious environmental policies.
It brings added scrutiny to how Chassé, the CAQ's environment minister, will handle the decision of whether to force a BAPE review of the Sayona project.
Her Liberal predecessor, Isabelle Melançon, had promised to force a review as soon as the company submitted its drilling request to the government, which it's expected to do in the coming weeks.
Chassé hasn't made the same commitment. Her office did not respond to an interview request from CBC News.
All three opposition parties in the National Assembly are calling on Chassé to use her discretionary power and order the BAPE to conduct public hearings into the mining project.
"It's an easy decision to make," Marie Montpetit, the Liberal environment critic, said last week.
The CAQ's hesitation on the issue raises doubts about its willingness to address climate change, she added.
The environment did not figure prominently in the CAQ's election platform, which was more concerned with promising roadways for suburban motorists.
Chassé — a political rookie and a former aerospace executive with no background in environmental issues — has, so far, been unable to ease concerns the CAQ is more interested in economic development than protecting the environment.
The legislature's three opposition parties held a joint news conference last week to demonstrate cross-party support for urgent action on climate change.
While noting the CAQ government is only a few weeks old, they expressed alarm at the absence of environmental policy to date.
"Each day we don't act is, unfortunately, one day closer to catastrophe," said Manon Massé, Québec Solidaire's parliamentary leader.
- With files from Radio-Canada's Thomas Deshaies and Thomas Gerbet