NEMASKA, QUE. — As Freddy Jolly’s pickup truck travels the dusty roads through the spruce forests outside Nemaska, Que., the one radio station fades in and out, and Jolly fills the gaps between country ballads with conversation.
“There are fewer moose than before due to logging,” Jolly says as he scans the horizon.
This is Eeyou Istchee in northern Quebec, the traditional land of the James Bay Cree, with a surface area equivalent to two-thirds of France. The 65-year-old Cree hunter and trapper knows the land well and has agreed to take a visitor to see sites where lithium mines are under construction.
Inside the pickup truck’s cab lie two rifles, one for small game and one for big game.
If he were to encounter a moose, Jolly would shoot it and share the meat with his community members, in keeping with tradition. He explains that in the fall, in the Eeyou Istchee, every family has moose meat in their freezer. Hunting is a source of food but it also helps maintain the cultural and spiritual values of the Cree Nation.
His parents and grandparents sold furs to the Hudson’s Bay Company, and he sells them to a company in North Bay, Ont., but he fears that this way of life, which many Cree still depend on, will be disrupted by the rush for the new “white gold” — lithium.
Companies planning to develop mines in the region believe it contains some of the world’s largest deposits of spodumene, a lithium-rich mineral.
“There are more and more mining claims. I see more and more people from the south exploring and drilling on traditional hunting areas, and soon, many roads will be built for lithium mines,” Jolly says.
In order to develop mines for lithium and other critical minerals needed for the electrification of transportation, the Grand Council of the Crees and the Quebec government are planning to build hundreds of kilometres of new roads and power lines, a railroad, and a deepwater port in the Eeyou Istchee.
Jolly’s truck stops at kilometre 58 on the EM-1 road on the territory of the Cree community of Eastmain, north of Nemaska.
This is where Critical Elements Corp. plans to empty two lakes after harvesting the fish and donating them to the community. This will allow the development of an open pit lithium and tantalum mine that could produce about 4,500 tonnes of ore per day for 17 years.
The mine will be built directly on the traditional hunting grounds of Ernie Moses, the tallyman or supervisor for the local trapline.
“I’m sad, but there’s not much I can do about this project,” Moses says in an interview near one of the lakes that will be drained.
For several generations, his family has trapped beavers in the lake. The area is home to an abundance of game, fish, and bird species at risk, according to the federal government’s environmental assessment.
Critical Elements Corp., says that in order to extract ore from the ground in this region, which holds “one of the highest purity spodumene deposits in the world," it will be necessary to destroy wetlands and cut down a significant number of trees.
“What will be left of this land in 20 years?” wonders Moses, adding that when he looks at the lake in front of him, he sees “beavers, but the mine sees dollar signs.”
The trapper made an agreement with the promoter to help him inventory the beavers on the territory so they can be removed before the lake is eliminated, and either relocated or killed for their pelts.
The Eeyou Istchee is divided into 300 family traplines, each large enough to support an extended family. Every one of these traditional traplines is under the responsibility of a tallyman like Moses, who on this day has brought along two of his daughters and his son-in-law to teach them.
“It’s important to pass on this traditional way of life; when I walk on this land, I take the place of my ancestors, they know I’m here," he said. "Whenever I’m on my trapline, I think about them, I’m filling in for them, and I want this to continue after me.”
Mining exploration projects for various types of metal have more than doubled in the last 15 years in the Eeyou Istchee, going from 174 in 2004 to nearly 400 in 2021. A few dozen kilometres down the road from the soon-to-disappear lakes lies the future site of the Nemaska Lithium mine, in which the Quebec government has invested tens of millions of dollars.
Nemaska Lithium plans to blast the spodumene rocks that contain the precious metal, and to do so, it too will have to eliminate a small lake and a creek, in addition to altering several bodies of water, according to a company progress report.
The mining company estimates there will be between 3,770 and 5,500 square metres of habitat loss for several fish species, but a report from the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada concludes the “anticipated negative residual effects on fish and fish habitat” are much greater — 54,600 square metres of fish habitat.
Louis-Martin Leclerc, a spokesman for the mine, said Nemaska Lithium is working on updating a compensation plan for the loss of fish habitat.
According to the company, 10 species of mammals considered threatened, vulnerable or at risk, including the wolverine and the woodland caribou, can be found in the project’s study area. Nemaska Lithium recognizes that a vast number of activities, during both the construction and operation phases of the mine, will impact wildlife.
However, Leclerc adds that there is no compensation plan for the loss of these mammals’ habitat because, according to its inventories, none of them have been observed on the actual site of the mine.
One of Jolly's biggest concerns is that a chemical spill or mine tailings will contaminate other bodies of water. The mine site is located in the watershed of the Rupert River, one of the largest rivers in Quebec, which has always been an important source of food for the Cree.
“It would be catastrophic,” the trapper says with a sigh, adding that lithium mining is dividing his community.
Benoît Plante, a water quality expert, led a research project on the site of the future Nemaska mine.
"Zero risk does not exist," said Plante, a professor at the Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue. "There are risks of dust, physical stability and water contamination, but we have some of the best legislation, which can minimize these risks and make sure they are acceptable."
Both the Nemaska Lithium and Critical Elements projects have received approval from federal and provincial authorities as well as Cree band councils in the region.
In Eastmain, band Chief Kenneth Cheezo supports the mining development.
"This is new for us, it’s the first time that a mine will open on this territory," he said in an interview.
"The company has come into the community, into our schools, to talk to young people about the jobs that will be created, and we’re not just talking about low-level employees; there are job opportunities in engineering, human resources, and several management positions."
The high school graduation rate has increased recently in Eastmain, and he believes this may be due to the eventual opening of the mine and the jobs that will be offered.
"I like to think that the success of our students over the past few years can be explained, perhaps in part, by the fact that they know, at the end of their studies, that something, a reward, may await them," he said.
The companies have committed to providing job training in the Cree communities. Furthermore, the communities will receive undisclosed amounts of financial compensation for hosting the mines.
Cheezo says he is confident, based on meetings with Critical Elements Corp. representatives, that the extraction will be done in a way that minimizes environmental impacts.
However, he admits that finding the right balance between the traditional way of life, environmental protection and economic development is a perilous exercise.
“It’s very difficult, because the land is so sacred to us, so it’s painful to give a piece of it, even if it’s just a piece of rock.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 6, 2023.
Stéphane Blais received the support of the Michener Foundation, which awarded him a Michener–Deacon Investigative Journalism fellowship in 2022 to report on the impact of lithium extraction in northern Quebec.
Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press