Cree see benefits from Quebec's first diamond mine, built on their territory

Cree leaders negotiated to have guaranteed jobs, contracts and a share of the royalties from the Renard mine, which was built on their territory, about 800 kilometres north of Montreal in northern Quebec.

Cree leaders negotiated to have guaranteed jobs, contracts and a share of the royalties from the Renard mine

The Renard mine has been producing diamonds for more than a year now, some of which are sold at Montreal's Birks jewellery store. (Isabelle Barzeele/Radio-Canada)

Quebec's first diamond mine — the $774-million, Stornoway Diamond Corp.'s Renard mine — sits on Cree territory, about 800 kilometres from Montreal in northern Quebec.

In operation since January 2017, the mine would not have happened without a unique agreement reached between the company and the Cree, who are guaranteed jobs, contracts and a share of the royalties, once the mine is profitable.

For more than a year now, the mine has been producing diamonds, some of which are sold at Montreal's Birks jewellery store. They bear a fleur-de-lis inscribed by a laser, and come with a certificate that says they're officially, "Diamants du Québec."

When it reaches its planned output of 1.6 million carats a year, the mine will account for one per cent of the global, rough diamond supply by value, making it the world's sixth-largest diamond producer, the company says.

But beyond its economic potential, the mine is an example of how some Indigenous communities have successfully negotiated to have a say in projects being developed on their territory.

Bill Namagoose is executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees, which represents Cree communities in the Eeyou Istchee territory in the James Bay region of northern Quebec.

He said the Cree initiated a dialogue with the developers of Renard, as well as with the developers of Goldcorp Inc.'s Éléonore mine, which is also in Cree territory. "It has been successful so far," Namagoose said.

Bill Namagoose, executive director of the Grand Council of the Crees, says the development of the Renard mine 'has been successful so far.' (CBC)

The company behind the mine also views its relationship with the Cree favourably.

"In their governance, they have established requirements as to when a mining project will go ahead and how it should be done," said Ghislain Poirier, Stornoway's vice president of public affairs.

There are back-and-forth consultations between the Cree and the company, and negotiations are held when necessary, Poirier said. "So it is very well structured."

Cree have a say in development projects

The Renard mine sits about 275 kilometres north of the Cree community of Mistissini, southeast of a lake of the same name.

It was built on Category III lands, on which the Cree hold year-round hunting, fishing and trapping rights under the 1975 James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement.

While non-Indigenous people can conduct activities on Category III lands, they are subjected to Cree jurisdiction, as well as any restrictions reached through joint, environmental assessments carried out by the Cree and the Quebec government.

Namagoose said by having a say in projects on their territory, the Cree have kept 95 per cent of their community members from leaving.

The discovery of kimberlite diamond deposits in the area in 2001, and contacts between the Cree and the company in charge of the Renard mine, led to the 2012 Mecheshoo Agreement.

That deal established the framework for a long-term working partnership "based on mutual trust and respect."

"We're not against development," said Chief Richard Shecapio of Mistissini.

"We've shown it in the past that through good examples of economic development; in the long-term, it's important to balance between the Cree way of life as hunters and trappers, and resource development," he told Radio-Canada.

Ghislain Poirier, a vice president at Stornoway Diamond Corp., the company that runs the mine, says its relationship with the Cree is positive. (Isabelle Barzeele/Radio-Canada)

The agreement includes training, jobs and business opportunities for Cree community members, as well as guarantees for environmental protection.

"With the Cree, we quickly understood that the environmental aspect was important," Poirier said, recalling that while the environmental section of the agreement is the shortest, "it took the longest time to negotiate."

The deal guarantees the protection of local waterways and hunting areas, as well as restricts travel in and out of the mine to avoid any disruptions to the environment.

It also provides Stornoway's Cree employees with time off to take part in the spring "goose break," when community members hunt migrating geese, and the fall "moose break."

'It's a passion for me'

Currently, about 70 Cree work for Stornoway, out of a staff of 460, Poirier said.

The labourers work on rotating schedules, with 14 consecutive days spent at the remote mining site, followed by 14 days off.

When they're working, they're housed in hotel-like accommodations near the mine, and a Cree company with about a dozen employees on site has been hired to provide cooking and housekeeping services.

Of the money invested in constructing the mine, $200 million has gone to Cree-owned businesses.

Emma Bearskin drives oversize mining trucks at the Stornoway mine. (Isabelle Barzeele/Radio-Canada)

Emma Bearskin, from Chisasibi, a Cree community at the mouth of the La Grande River, played with Tonka trucks as a child.

Now, she drives a giant, off-road mining truck, carrying ore from the open pit and underground sections of the mine for processing. "It's a passion for me," Bearskin said.

The company has said it expects to conduct mining activities at the site for between 11 to 20 years.

With files from Radio-Canada's Jean-Michel Leprince