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MONTREAL—Only minutes up the road from the focal point of the 1990 Oka Crisis, Niocan Inc. plans to set up an underground mine for the extraction of niobium, a rare element used in high-grade steel production.
Despite the past history of tensions and widespread opposition to the current proposal within the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, the proposed mining project has remained under the radar: even as the company continues to lobby government officials and push forward with the project, little media or mainstream political focus has been paid to the issue. Residents of Kanesatake, though, are not letting their guard down in the face of the mining project.
“A very short-sighted vision drives this mining project that will impact the land and environment for future generations, but the government and Niocan only see dollar signs,” says Ellen Gabriel, a celebrated activist from Kanesatake. “Our community has been resisting for over 300 years and our rights are not recognized, particularly our rights to the land, but we have every right to defend this land.”
As the site of the Oka Crisis, Kanesatake has already served to ignite a generation of protest and action within Indigenous communities. If the Quebec government grants permission to open the mine against the will of Kanesatake, the potential political implications are serious.
“Quebec's government holds no jurisdiction to grant mining permits on traditional Mohawk lands,” Sohenrise Paul Nicholas of the Mohawk Council of Kanesatake told The Dominion. “We are opposed to the mine and are willing to defend the land...A mine is not [an] appropriate project for our traditional lands.”
Voices opposing the project highlight the long-term environmental impacts of underground mining, a process that will use large amounts of water from local aquifers and affect an estimated 25 square kilometres of fertile agricultural lands.
“One immediate concern is environmental,” says Nicholas. “A major mine operating in a mixed residential and agricultural area is not acceptable. Beyond permanently altering the natural landscape, the mining process will disturb high concentrations of radioactive elements within the land.”
Radium and polonium—both radioactive—have been measured in elevated concentrations within the underground ore body that Niocan Inc. is proposing to mine, a process that may lead to large volumes of radioactive waste.
Many Mohawks also oppose the mine on the basis of their collective water rights.
“A mine like this will be detrimental to our water table and our health in general,” says Nicholas, in an urgent tone. “About 90 per cent of our homes in Kanesatake use well water every day, and once those aquifers are disturbed for mining use there is no guarantee that our water will be safe anymore.”
Over the past decade Niocan Inc., based in downtown Montreal, has been lobbying to set up the controversial project amidst agricultural lands just outside of Montreal. Highly unpopular in both Kanesatake and surrounding Quebec communities like Oka, the contested mining project is uniting local farmers and Mohawks in an anti-mining struggle.
“Local farmers living close to where the mine would be situated are totally opposed and are expressing outrage that this mine would position itself right in the middle of the farming area,” Kanesatake resident Walter David told The Dominion in an interview at his Moccasin-Jo coffee and tea shop in Kanesatake. David says he has seen a solidarity develop over the last decade through joint opposition to the Niocan mine. “Agricultural workers are growing many fruits and vegetables on these lands just beside Montreal. Do we want toxic chemicals entering our food and water supply?
“Today we are supporting the farmers and the farmers are supporting us.”
Points of opposition to the mine put forward by Mohawk activists in Kanesatake and community residents in Oka are similar, even if disagreement over fundamental land rights in the area exist. It is a fascinating political solidarity, born from opposition to corporate mining, in an area historically shaped by territorial conflicts.
Recently, Quebecois community activists collected thousands of signatures for a petition they delivered to Quebec's National Assembly. Arguing that “there is a blatant conflict in using land in the Oka area for both agricultural purposes and the establishment of a niobium mine,” the petition calls on the Quebec government to “protect the important agricultural, residential, recreational and environmental areas in the Oka region against any current or future mining development project in the area.”
Representatives for Niocan continue to lobby to mine niobium, a highly lucrative element actively extracted from mines only in Canada and Brazil and used for aerospace, military and industrial machinery. Any new mine could result in revenue to the tune of tens of millions of dollars per year. The immediate economic gains for a company seeking to extract the element from Indigenous lands are clear.
A final decision on whether to grant permission to Niocan Inc. for the mine is forthcoming from Quebec's Environment Ministry, although the decade-long negotiations have lead to two separate reports from Quebec's Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE).
On water, a 2005 BAPE report concluded that the “ground water pumping required for operating the mine would lead to lowering of water levels in the deep aquifer...it could also lower the ground water table and the level of certain wetlands,” impacting “agricultural water supply.” Pollution stemming from the mine “could trigger contamination of ground water,” it said.
Despite these findings, progress toward the establishment of the mine continues, as local residents work to raise awareness and struggle against the project.
“We have had conversations; it is an issue that we will deal with,” Hubert Marleau, interim Chairman of the Board and CEO of Niocan, said of land disputes involving the Mohawks of Kanesatake.
“In Canadian history there have been many cases where things were not so easy,” said Marleau. “In the end things worked out and people were happy.”
But not everyone agrees with Marleau’s rosy assessment.
"Well, this is a selective view of Canadian history," says Clifton Nicholas, a community activist and videographer from Kanesatake. "Throughout all of Canada's history we were never given a fair shake."
The debate about Niocan's niobium mine points to a larger context of simmering land conflict across Canada. In recent years, Indigenous people from coast to coast have taken to the front lines to oppose industrial development on traditional territories. These areas, like the one where the proposed Niocan mine will be situated, are often officially classified by Canadian or provincial authorities as crown lands open for private development, even though they have been long held by local Indigenous communities and are sometimes subject to ongoing land claims, legal challenges or disputes.
Community activists and traditional leaders opposing development on “disputed” land are facing increasing state repression, including the arrest of six Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug (KI) elders in Northern Ontario, police repression of community leaders of the Algonquin of Barriere Lake in northern Quebec, and the ongoing fight by the Sinixt Nation against logging on traditional lands in BC.
The future of Niocan's pending mining operation in Kanesatake remains unclear; however, if recent history and the historic 1990 land-rights standoff are any indicators, Niocan is set to face fierce, community-led resistance if the project moves forward.
"No means no and Niocan Inc. needs to understand this,” says Nichloas. “Nothing the company says will change our position; we do not want our traditional lands to face [an environmentally destructive] mining project that goes against our wishes."
For more information on Niocan and Kanesatake visit MiningWatch Canada's resource page http://www.miningwatch.ca/en/home/country/canada/quebec/kanesatake-niocan.
Stefan Christoff is a Montreal-based writer, community activist and musician who contributes to The Dominion. Stefan is at http://www.twitter.com/spirodon.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.