'Dangerously compromising': Quebec mining sector reopening a concern for Indigenous leaders

News that the mining sector has been added to the list of priority activities in Quebec is being met with worry and concern from some Indigenous leaders in the province. 

Cree Nation says it's working closely with mining companies in its territory

The Renard mine in Eeyou Istchee, the Cree area of northern Quebec, is operated by Stornoway Diamond Corp. (Isabelle Barzeele/Radio-Canada)

News that the mining sector has been added to the list of priority activities in Quebec is being met with concern from some Indigenous leaders in the province.

Minister of Energy and Natural Resources Jonatan Julien announced on Monday that mining operations in Quebec are now on the list of priority activities and services, meaning they can gradually restart operations beginning Wednesday. 

"Quebec's decision to allow the resumption of mining operations in a hurry is dangerously compromising the efforts made by our communities to slow the spread of [COVID-19] in the regions," said Ghislain Picard, grand chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, in a news release. 

There are 22 mining operations in the province of Quebec, according the Ministry of Mines and Natural Resources.

Picard said given that many of them are located near several Indigenous communities across the province, the "movement and comings and goings of mining workers is of great concern."

'I would like to reiterate that the pandemic does not exempt governments from their duty to consult,' said Grand Chief Ghislain Picard of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Earlier in pandemic, the provincial government moved to limit movement to several regions, in part as an effort to protect vulnerable regions and populations.

Regarding this most recent decision, Picard referred to the lack of consultation on the matter from the Quebec government. 

"I would also like to reiterate that the pandemic does not exempt governments from their duty to consult," Picard said in the release. 

Cree also surprised by announcement 

Monday's announcement also took leaders of the Quebec Cree Nation by surprise, according to Grand Chief Abel Bosum, who said he expressed his concerns to minister Julien in a letter. 

"To express there seemed to be a lack of transparency in restoring the economy and that yes, mining in the region is important, but we are also dealing with COVID-19," said Bosum. 

Even though these mines are out on the land, there is still contact with our people."- Abel Bosum, Cree Grand Chief

Bosum said the main concerns around the reopening of the mining sector for the Cree revolve around transportation and movement of workers, particularly outside workers from COVID-19 hotspots in the South, as well as local Cree workers working in the mines and then returning to the communities. 

"We had a concern about what were the measures in place to provide security," said Bosum. "Even though these mines are out on the land, in isolated areas, there is still contact with our people."

Mines won't reopen without Cree consent: Bosum

Bosum said Cree leadership has been in touch with the three mines currently in operation in Cree territory and have assurances that they won't reopen without close Cree collaboration and consent. He has also been in touch by phone with the minister.

Cree Grand Chief Abel Bosum. (Cree Nation Government/Facebook)

"We've been reassured by [the companies] and we've been reassured by the ministry that we will be working together moving forward," said Bosum. 

Stornoway Diamond Corp., one of the mining operations on Cree territory, announced Tuesday that it is extending a care and maintenance period of its operations 250 kilometres north of the Cree community of Mistissini, because of the depressed diamond market conditions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak. 

In making its announcement Monday, the ministry said it was working closely with public health officials to put in place several measures, including reducing fly-in-fly-out to a strict minimum, extending work cycles from 14 days to 28 days, chartering more aircraft to allow for physical distancing and requiring workers to wear protective equipment. 

"The proposed measures will allow mining operations to resume in a gradual and structured way, with due respect for mine workers, their health and safety, and the health and safety of the surrounding communities," Julien said in a news release.

On average, over the last five years, the mining industry's gross domestic product for Quebec as a whole has been roughly $7.4 billion, or 2.1 per cent of total gross domestic product.