Algonquins of Barriere Lake say "no" to mining on traditional territory

Three hours north of Ottawa, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, also known as the Mitchikanibikok Inik First Nation, are looking to stop mining development on their traditional territory.

"They're threatening our way of life. They're threatening our rivers, the water, the land, the wildlife," says band councillor Norman Matchewan.

Community members and allies have been raising money to help the cause, including a fundraising chili dinner in Ottawa last month.

First United Church's hall filled to more than 200 people, and saw contributions surpass $6000, according to organisers. Funds went toward supporting the community's efforts to challenge mining exploration and development in the central Quebec territory.

The evening saw various speakers, including the nation's chief, Casey Ratt, councillor Matchewan, and Ugo Lapointe, a representative from Mining Watch Canada, appeal to audience members for their support and awareness of the community's struggle.

People resisting mining on Algonquins of Barriere Lake territory. Source: Barriere Lake Solidarity/Facebook

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake First Nation is challenging Copper One, a mining company based out of Toronto. The community says that the company has been prospecting without their consent or approval, on land the First Nation has management rights to.

In June 2016, Copper One staked a claim on territory that comes under a 1991 trilateral agreement. The agreement between the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, the Quebec Government and the Canadian Government, was aimed at having co-management of renewable resources.

The federal government walked away from the agreement in 2001, citing high cost.

The provincial government was still working on negotiating a deal with the First Nation when, without notifying the the Algonquins of Barriere Lake, lifted a mining claim moratorium that had previously been on the territory.

The Copper One's Riviere Dore project covers an 80-kilometre-long stretch of land that overlaps with a wildlife reserve and the watershed for the Ottawa River.

"That's why we come down here," Matchewan told the audience at the chili dinner, "it's not only going to impact my community of Barriere Lake, but all of us."

Matchewan and Ratt both spoke about the importance of maintaining a sustainable existence on the land, which they said mining was not a part of.

Map of Algonquins of Barriere Lake territorial agreements, and Copper One Claim. Source: Mitchikanibikok Inik

In fall 2016, the Algonquins of Barriere Lake prevented road access for mining work, and sued for any and all mining activity to be halted.

On February 8, 2017, the Quebec government suspended Copper One’s mining claims.

Copper One released a statement saying that it, “Strongly disagrees,” with the government’s decision, and that it would, “continue to exercise its legal rights.”

While the First Nation’s legal work is being done pro-bono, they have little money to spare for other expenses. The Algonquins of Barriere Lake has been under third party governance since 2006, and have little to no influence over distribution of funds.

Lemieux Nolet Inc. has been managing the finances of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake for eleven years. In that time, poverty has increased and the deficit remains.

The community is not on the grid, and is powered by a single diesel generator, which restricts housing expansion, were there the money to build new homes.

“There are no economic opportunities in a 59 acre reserve, where we live in third world conditions,” said Ratt at the dinner.

A delegation of human rights advocates and academics recently visited reserve. After talking with the people living there, and seeing poverty and lack of infrastructure, the delegation denounced the federal and provincial governments’ actions.

“Some delegates on our trip come from places around the world that are escaping civil war, but civil war is exactly what the treatment of Barriere Lake looked like to them,” reads their statement in its concluding paragraph.

At the chili dinner, as the evening turned to solutions, the speakers pointed to reformation of the Quebec Mining Act as a beginning.

Quebec practices free entry mining, whereby one can stake a claim on anyone’s property without requiring a permit, and therefore not triggering any consultation processes with local First Nations. The act has been amended to exclude individual private property, and municipalities can regulate within their boundaries, but the amendments overlook First Nations’ lands.

The Barriere Lake Drummers, seven youth from the community, close the evening with drumming and singing.

The night drawing to a close, Matchewan fielded questions from the audience.

“What’s the best thing we can do in a fight,” came a question from the back.

Matchewan’s face split into a grin as he said, “To win.”

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