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Energy transition or ancestral territories

In Abitibi-Témiscamingue, an indigenous community refuses to sacrifice part of its territory in the name of lithium.

Lithium silicate is visible through the snow.

© Valérian Mazataud Le Devoir
Lithium silicate is visible through the snow.

On a large map, Nathalie Mathias points to a location on the north shore of Lake Simard, in Témiscamingue. This is where the camp is located where this Anichinabe mother goes regularly, with her family and friends, to enjoy nature. She takes her children there to fish, summer and winter, and organizes “healing retreats”.

This is also where the Australian company Sayona Mining plans to dig an open-pit lithium mine within five years. The 275 mining titles held by the company cover an area of ​​15,907 hectares, about fifteen kilometers from the native village of Winneway.

“Am I going to lose access to my chalet? »Asks Mme Mathias, worry in his voice and in his eyes. This is a question that many other members of his community, who also have camps there, are asking themselves.

On this cold November day, half a dozen children slide on sled rugs and scooters down the long slope that leads to the entrance to the village. The Ottawa River flows less than a kilometer away. Snowflakes swirl around the one-piece building of the Natural Resources Department of the Long Point First Nation Anichinabe community. Inside, Mme Mathias and three other women participate in one of the three talking circles organized by the band council. These water keepers, as they call themselves, are all opposed to this project, named Tansim. They fear the destruction of the forest and the contamination of the water in the lake frequented daily by members of the community.

“The fish we catch need the water; blueberries, cranberries are found near water; cedar, which is important in our medicine, grows at the water’s edge, ”explains Claudette Poucachiche, who wants to leave this resource as a legacy to her dozen grandchildren.

What would be at stake is their traditional way of life. For food, community members still rely heavily on hunting and fishing, especially in the area targeted by the mining. “In most of our freezers there is moose meat. The hunters share the meat with those who cannot go hunting ”, reports Mme Poucachiche. Beaver, partridge and even lynx are regularly found on their plates. A petition against the Tansim project, uploaded by M’s daughterme Mathias, has collected more than 22,000 signatures.

A determined opposition

The representatives of the band council note the fears of their members. While Sayona had announced plans to conduct exploration drilling this spring, the council opposed it. The company then agreed to put everything on hold until an agreement was reached with the Long Point First Nation.

The CEO of Sayona Quebec believes that good communication with the residents of Winneway will help reach an agreement. “We can advantageously help with workforce training, employability, and involve community businesses in the execution of the project,” says Guy Laliberté. There is financial compensation which is also often discussed. “

But the band council has a very different point of view. “Even if they knocked on our doors with a billion dollars, we would still have great reservations. There is no price we can put on water, ”says Berlinda Wabegijig, the natural resources advisor, who is also a teacher at the community’s primary school.

The fear of Mme Wabegijig is that in the event of a deadlock, the company considers that it has the right to move forward anyway. It is therefore not excluded that the Long Point First Nation will eventually have to defend its land claims in court, believes lawyer Rodrigue Turgeon, who works with the community on the mining projects file. One thing is certain, the chief of the Long Point First Nation, Steeve Mathias, does not want his community of about 800 members to be relocated, as it has been in the past due to a hydroelectric dam. The council wants the government of Quebec to intervene in their favor in the matter.

In the neighboring village of Laforce, enthusiasm does not seem to be there either. “Jobs are all well and good, but we would prefer an agriculture project,” says Mayor Gérald Charron, his gaze turned towards the Tansim project site, on the other side of the vast and wild Lake Simard. “If it contaminates the water here, it will contaminate the bottom of the Ottawa River,” he adds, before leaving in his van.

A constellation of mines

The Tansim project would be one of three mines planned by Sayona in Abitibi-Témiscamingue, which will supply a primary lithium processing plant on the North American Lithium site. This mining complex located in the municipality of La Corne, which includes one of the three mines in question, was acquired this summer by the Australian company. The previous owner, the Chinese company CATL, stopped production in May 2019 and placed itself under the protection of the Companies’ Creditors Arrangement Act. Sayona also owns shares in the Moblan mine project in Jamésie.

“With these four projects, we have the largest reserve of lithium identified today in North America, or 23% of it,” said Mr. Laliberté.

In addition, new lithium-related mining projects could emerge in the coming years, as the number of lithium-related mining titles exploded in Abitibi-Témiscamingue and in Quebec.

The provincial government, through Investissement Québec, had injected $ 110 million into North American Lithium before it was acquired by Sayona and Piedmont Lithium. The deal enabling the transaction provides for the repayment of $ 47 million from the new owners. The objective is to restart the mine and the factory for the first concentration of lithium spodumene within a year and a half.

However, obstacles still stand before the realization not only of Tansim, but also of the Authier mine, which faces opposition in the region. Citizens and organizations are particularly concerned about the integrity of the Saint-Mathieu-Berry esker, a source of underground drinking water from which the bottled water company Eska is supplied. An environmental assessment process has been initiated by the Ministry of the Environment, and the Environmental Public Hearings Office is expected to look into it towards the end of 2022, the mining company predicts.

Environmental risks

But what are the real environmental risks of lithium mines? Are the members of the Long Point First Nation right to be concerned about the integrity of their lake? “There is always a risk of water contamination. It is a question of risk management. Is the risk minimal or acceptable? »Indicates Benoît Plante, holder of the Institutional Research Chair in Environmental Geochemistry of Critical and Strategic Mineral Resources and Professor at the University of Quebec in Abitibi-Témiscamingue (UQAT). The case of Tansim should therefore be studied to determine this risk.

“There have been lakes in the past that have been seriously disturbed by mines. But we are in a new era, where the risks are largely mitigated and monitored. It will be, for example, fish sampling campaigns every summer, ”adds Jean-François Boulanger, professor at the Institute for Research in Mines and the Environment at UQAT.

The general manager of the Abitibi-Témiscamingue underground water company fears that the rush to develop the lithium battery industry will undermine the rigor of environmental studies. Olivier Pitre cites as an example the hydrogeological study carried out on behalf of the first owner of the La Corne mine. This is outdated, he says, as the pit is now 45.2% larger than originally planned. He demands that it be updated, as the effects on the water table may differ.

The Regroupement vigilance mines d’Abitibi-Témiscamingue, for its part, compiled 83 cases of leaks, spills or broken pipes during the five years or so of operations at the La Corne mine. Thousands of liters of mine tailings, process water and pulp concentrate would thus have spilled out of the place where they are supposed to be contained. However, according to Benoît Plante, “if the mine does things right”, the impact of these incidents can be “limited on the site” and “very well be controlled and repaired afterwards”.

For its part, Sayona Quebec believes that the environmental benefits of its projects will outweigh the nuisances. “We could, like Quebeckers, make a major contribution to the fight against climate change by allowing these projects to emerge,” said the CEO of Sayona Quebec. What are the other options if we want to replace gasoline in our vehicles, our boats and our air transport one day? You have the choice of buying lithium from Australia which has been processed in China or lithium salts from South America, which are awfully difficult for groundwater, with perhaps less attractive working conditions. than in Abitibi. “

Another vision of the transition

In La Motte, where the Authier project is located, this green speech as well as the promise of jobs and income for the municipality convinced part of the population, including the mayor, Réjean Richard. The latter reports that the project has, however, created tensions between citizens favorable and unfavorable to the project.

Marie-Hélène Massy Emond refuses that her forest, her place of healing, be replaced by a large hole and piles of rocks. “For 13 years, I have been coming here to pick mushrooms and blueberries. This forest, I inhabit it. My days of happiness, sadness, discovery, learning, I live them here, several hours a week, ”says this sound artist.

As she takes forest paths, she and friends worried about the mine project are surrounded by dozens of boreholes made by Sayona, marked with orange cylinders. They are at the heart of the planned mine. On the edge of a small lake, the group lights a wood fire and denounces the government’s vision for energy transition.

“All we are going to do is change the oil for another extraction which will have its negative impacts on the environment and on the populations”, deplores Mr.me Massy Emond.

“We justify emergencies based on needs. But in reality, these are desires converted into needs, ”adds Gilles Gagnon, resident of Saint-Mathieu-d’Harricana, a neighboring village.

“We need social policies to change lifestyle habits that are very harmful to the environment,” says Rodrigue Turgeon, co-spokesperson for the Esker Citizen Protection Committee, who is also a lawyer for the Long Point First Nation. . The Committee would also like a study to be carried out on the cumulative impacts of the three Sayona projects.

A few steps away glisten crystals of lithium, under a thin layer of snow. They may well be turned into battery components in the near future, or lie there for millennia.

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