CHISASIBI, Que. — Heather House studies full-time through McGill University’s distance education program, and when she is not immersed in books she is raising her eight children with her husband in Chisasibi, the northernmost community in Quebec accessible by road.
Feeding a family of eight children, two parents, and two elders in such a remote community where grocery prices are among the highest in the country would be a major challenge if it were not for access to the land for hunting, fishing, trapping and berry picking.
“The majority of my family’s food comes from hunting, comes from the land,” House, 34, said in an interview at the Retro Daze Café in Chisasibi.
The café has the feel of a bar, filled with young adults playing pool and snacking on chicken wings, but there is no beer on tap as Chisasibi is a “dry” community where alcohol sales are banned. Seated in the café last October, House opened a computer to display a map of active mining claims in Quebec.
“When you look at the map, there are a lot of mining claims in the area of the Trans-Taiga Highway on traditional Cree hunting territories,” she noted, referring to thegravel roadthat begins east of Chisasibi and stretches almost as far as Labrador.
“If these mineral claims turn into mines, and they manage to take what they need, what they want from the land, what land will be left for the next generations?" House asked. "Where will my children and grandchildren go to hunt and feed themselves?”
There are currently close to 400 mining exploration projects in all of the Eeyou Istchee, the traditional lands where approximately 20,000 James Bay Cree live in nine communities. With more than 5,000 residents, Chisasibi is the largest of the Cree communities.
For House, the forests, lakes and rivers are inseparable from Cree cultural identity. With her hunter and trapper husband, she teaches her children to hunt moose, geese and caribou in order to become self-sufficient, as her parents and grandparents did with her.
She refuses to let her family depend on the "stores full of processed foods" in Chisasibi, where the products are sometimes "stale or rotten" before they even hit the shelves because they travel thousands of kilometres just to get there. The land, she said, has everything needed to provide food for her people.
A 2015 study by the Institut national de santé publique du Québec backs up her assertion: among Quebec First Nations living in remote areas, "the traditional diet is healthy and high in a variety of essential nutrients," whereas "the commercially based diet, which is high in refined sugars, trans fat, and sodium and low in essential nutrients, contributes to chronic illnesses like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease."
The prevalence of diabetes is 3.5 times higher in Chisasibi than in the rest of the province, according to public health figures.
House is concerned that the potential extraction of lithium and other critical minerals, because it deprives the Cree of certain hunting grounds, will exacerbate food insecurity in the same way major Hydro-Québec projects have had a negative impact on the local food supply.
In addition to flooding vast hunting grounds, the development of the La Grande Complex facilities in the 1980s caused mercury contamination in fish, especially those at the top of the food chain such as northern pike.
“For the Crees, the only way to prevent high exposure to methylmercury was to radically change their lifestyle and reduce their consumption of fish,” a 1998 study by the Cree Board of Health and Social Services of James Bay concluded.
“When they built the dams, they didn’t listen to us," House said. "When forests were logged to the point of scaring away moose and caribou in some areas, they didn’t listen to us, and now they want to mine for lithium and other metals."
In 2019, researchers from the Université de Montréal, the University of Ottawa and the Assembly of First Nations published a major decade-long study on First Nations’ food, nutrition and environment.
More than half of the 6,487 Indigenous adults consulted said access to traditional foods has been hampered by climate change, but also by the industrial activities such as hydroelectric dams and mining. The study also noted First Nations’ lack of "sovereignty" over food resources.
While pregnant in November 2020, House went on a two-week hunger strike to protest La Grande Alliance, a memorandum of understanding signed between the Quebec government and the Grand Council of the Crees.
The multibillion-dollar infrastructure plan has among its objectives to "position Québec as an important player in the global mining sector, including lithium." The plan calls for a 700-kilometre rail network along the James Bay highway, the construction of hundreds of kilometres of new roads and power lines, as well as the creation of a deep-sea port.
“Like many people in the community, I learned about La Grande Alliance the day the memorandum was signed” and “then, they promised a year of consultation, but nothing happened in the months following the signing. COVID came in and lockdown began a week after the announcement,” House said.
She wrote an open letter to the Cree and Quebec governments, denouncing the lack of consultation before the memorandum of understanding was signed and a failure to inform the Cree community about its contents.
“Remember our grandparents, our great-grandparents and the ancestors before us," the letter said. "They survived, barely. We are the products of their trauma; we are their voice when they could not speak. It’s time to say no."
During her hunger strike, she ate only broth made from either caribou or fish. However, her action was not enough to convince the grand chief at the time, Abel Bosum, to meet with her.
In July 2021, a little over a year after the signing of La Grande Alliance, Bosum lost the elections, and Mandy Gull-Masty replaced him as head of the Grand Council of the Crees.
In an interview with The Canadian Press, Gull-Masty acknowledged that the Cree people were not sufficiently consulted by their own government before the signing of La Grande Alliance.
“Some people told me that they were not familiar with the consultation process and that the Grand Council should have done more, which is also what I believe,” said the 42-year-old leader, adding the promoters of La Grande Alliance have hired information officers in recent months to publicize the project in different communities.
The impact of mining projects on lakes, rivers, and hunting grounds are “very legitimate concerns,” the grand chief said.
However, she pointed out the Grand Council of the Crees has already negotiated the protection of 30 per cent of the Cree territory from industrial activity by 2030. These protected areas will preserve the habitats of several species that are crucial to the survival of the traditional Cree way of life.
La Grande Alliance plans to create jobs in the energy, housing, natural resources and conservation sectors.
“There are many job opportunities and the Cree communities will be involved,” said Gull-Masty, who sees La Grande Alliance as a way for the Cree to potentially gain more autonomy.
“It is important to understand that La Grande Alliance is a memorandum of understanding and that feasibility studies are underway," Gull-Masty said. "Once we have compiled enough information, we intend to inform our members before deciding on the next steps."
A spokesperson for La Grande Alliance told The Canadian Press that “the results of the feasibility study” will be presented early this year.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 7, 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