First Nation in Abitibi-Témiscamingue seeks independent review of potential mining project

The Long Point First Nation wants to lead its own environmental assessment of a lithium mining project on its ancestral land. The nation is concerned about the potential impacts on its traditional way of life.

Long Point First Nation has asked Quebec government for funding to conduct assessment

The Long Point First Nation council has asked the province for funding so it can conduct its own environmental assessment of a mining project on its ancestral territory. (Long Point First Nation Government/Facebook)

An Anishinabeg First Nation in the Abitibi-Témiscamingue region wants to lead its own environmental assessment of a lithium mining project that the company Sayona is looking to develop on ancestral land.

The Long Point First Nation, whose 800 members mostly live in Winneway, Que., is concerned about the potential impacts that the project could have on its land and its traditional way of life.

"We want to be more vigilant on how things are going to happen on our territory, and this is why we feel that we need to play a lead role with all what's being proposed," said Chief Steeve Mathias.

Sayona has three mining projects in the region: one near Winneway, one near La Corne, and one near La Motte. 

Chief Steeve Mathias says mining operations are proposed for areas where people take part in traditional practices such as hunting and fishing, such as Lac Simard, which is near Winneway. (Submitted by Steeve Mathias)

The project the First Nation is particularly concerned about is the Tansim project near Lac Simard, which is part of its territory. The community uses the area to fish, hunt and forage for medicinal plants and berries. 

Although the project is still in the exploration phase, Mathias says his community is worried that the drinking water and land could be contaminated if a mine is developed. 

Request for an independent assessment

The council of the Long Point First Nation sent a letter to the Legault government on March 21 asking the province for funding and resources to conduct an evaluation of the potential environmental impacts of Sayona's activities.

Quebec's environmental review board, the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE), is responsible for conducting these types of assessments, but Mathias said his community is seeking to conduct its own review because it is somewhat sceptical of the agency.

Chief Steeve Mathias of Long Point First Nation says his community has serious environmental concerns about possible lithium mining in their territory. (Submitted by Steeve Mathias)

"It's a question of trust," he explained. "We've seen that far too many times now, that the industry and the government work in close collaboration and we've always been excluded by that." 

That said, the First Nation still wants the BAPE to review Sayona's activities. 

In its letter to the government, the nation's council asked that agency to produce one single assessment report that would combines all three projects, saying they should be evaluated together because they are connected.

In an email, the Quebec Environment Ministry confirmed that it had received the request and was still in the process of reviewing it.

Vocal community support

Nine community organizations have declared their support for the Long Point First Nation and launched an online petition asking the province to grant its request.

One of these groups is the Abitibi-Témiscamingue and Northern Quebec branch of the union federation, the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN).

"For us, it's important, as a political organization that defends the rights of workers but also the rights of all Quebec citizens, to recognize the right of First Nations to have a say in the exploitation of their territories," said the branch president Félix-Antoine Lafleur, in an interview with Radio-Canada.

Some of the organizations that have voiced their support include the environmental organization Action boréale, the Rouyn-Noranda anti-pipeline coalition, the citizens' committee for the protection of esker, the Regroupement Vigilance Mines de l'Abitibi-Témiscamingue, and the group Collectif des Pas du Lieu.

Mining company Sayona says in a statement that it is eager to collaborate with local communities, adding it hopes to involve them in its projects. (Mélanie Picard/Radio-Canada)

Sayona declined the CBC's request for an interview. In a statement, the mining company said it is attuned to the concerns of the local communities where it operates, and that it wanted to involve them in their projects and create partnerships with them.

"Sayona has already committed, almost a year ago, to conduct all the necessary environmental studies in due course," the statement read.

The company said it was too soon to start those studies at this point, because it hasn't even determined whether there is enough mineral to actually start a mine at the Tansim site.

With files from Franca Mignacca and Radio-Canada's Alexia Martel-Desjardins

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