by Sarah Nixon
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake have been forced to demonstrate their resistance to resource extraction without consent on their land once again in recent weeks. In opposition to exploration projects by Toronto-based junior mining company Copper One, the community established a land protection camp along Highway 117 in early October. The camp is located on the outskirts of Barriere Lake territory, about 300 kilometres north of Ottawa in the province of Québec.
Councilor of the Barriere Lake Algonquins Norman Matchewan told the Leveller that the land protection camp consists of 15 tents housing 20 people at present. Camp inhabitants have been targeted by the Sûreté du Québec, who showed up at the camp at 3:00 a.m. on Nov. 17 to ask all residents if they were in possession of weapons.
The struggle against Copper One began in June 2016 when the Algonquins of Barriere Lake discovered that the Québec Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources had unilaterally lifted the moratorium it placed on mining within their territory in 2011. The moratorium protected 10,000 square kilometres of land identified as traditional territory of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake in a 1991 Trilateral Agreement on renewable resource management, signed by the Indigenous community, the federal government and the provincial government of Québec.
When the community discovered the moratorium had been lifted, leaders requested an assurance from the provincial government that no mining projects were slated to take place on their land. On Aug. 6, Barriere Lake received a letter from Special Representative of Québec Mario Gibeault confirming no mining activity was planned within the Seaman Forestry Sector, which covers a portion of the territory. It was later learned that Copper One had in fact submitted multiple claims to undertake exploratory drilling on Algonquin land. Other mining companies hold claims within the territory, but are not actively pursuing exploration projects at present.
During the moratorium, Copper One claimed on its website that the company was “actively engaging with local First Nations communities and an exploration program will move forward once discussions have been positively concluded with these communities.” Yet, in the wake of the lifted moratorium, leaders within the Barriere Lake community made it clear that they will not accept the mining company’s exploration program.
During an interview on CKCU’s “OPIRG Roots Radio” on Nov. 8, Chief of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake Casey Ratt stated that his people “want to make sure a drilling operation doesn’t happen for any reason.” Matchewan echoed this sentiment during an interview with CHUO’s “The Circle” that same day, saying “we’ve never accepted mining because we already see enough damage from forestry, tourism and hydro.” He also added, “our community took a very firm position and it hasn’t changed; there’s just no room for mining in Parc La Vérendrye,” he said, referring to Quebec’s largest wildlife reserve situated within the Algonquins’ traditional territory.
“We are not going to let Copper One bury our identity alive because much of our identity comes from the land: our language, our culture, our teachings,” said Matchewan.
Matchewan also stressed the importance of protecting water from contamination by the mining project, not only for the Barriere Lake people but for everyone within the Ottawa River watershed. Matchewan warned that “if this mining comes through it’s going to contaminate our waters which connect to the Ottawa River,” and added that “everyone needs water, including Trudeau and Premier Couillard.”
Last week, Copper One confirmed that there are a total of 14 sites within the area that the company plans to explore. In a press release on June 29, Copper One cited a written notice it received from the Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources as stating that “based on the evolution of the situation in the territory there are no longer public safety issues that may justify suspension of these claims,” and therefore, “Copper One has a right of access to the land under the claims and has the right to conduct any and all exploration work deemed appropriate.”
This press release represents the law governing mining prospecting and development in Canada correctly. As MiningWatch founding director Joan Kuyek explained in an email to the Leveller, resource development in Canada operates under a system of “free entry,” often referred to as “free mining” in Québec. This system grants all ownership rights of subsurface minerals to the federal government, who can then lease the rights for any and all land not protected by a specific statute to anyone holding a prospecting license, “obtained by paying a small fee” to a provincial or territorial government. Kuyek explained that “current mining laws in provinces and territories do not require consultation with, or protection for First Nations before a claim is staked […] Nor do these mining acts provide [Indigenous Peoples] with a role in land resource decisions as required by Delgamuukw,” referring to the 1997 Supreme Court case, Delgamuukw v. British Columbia, that determined what protections for Aboriginal title are provided under the Canadian Constitution. “In general, exploration activities and the nature of free entry have a devastating effect on native [sic] land rights, ” Kuyek wrote.
The Algonquins of Barriere Lake are seeking support in their struggle against Copper One, and for the reinstatement of the mining moratorium. A PayPal account has been established for donations to sustain the land protection camp, which can be accessed at barrierelakesolidarity.org. An NDN taco sale will take place in the evening on Friday, Nov. 25th at St. Paul’s United Church in the Byward Market, with tacos sold to-go. Readers can also subscribe to the mailing list at barrierelakesolidarity.org to stay up to date with the struggle.
This article was first published in the Leveller Vol. 9, No. 3