As revelations mount about problems with mercury contamination from the now closed De Beers Victor Diamond Mine in Attawapiskat, opposition to proposed Ring of Fire mining projects soar. Claims by the Wildlands League that the company did not release the monitoring results for mercury contamination at 5 of 9 monitoring wells, received a boost on January 13, 2020, when Justice David A. Thomas ruled that these claims of violation of Ontario environmental laws could proceed to trial.
Outrage over apparent deceit by De Beers is similar to what sparked the end of Dump Site 41, when police broke a blockade to prevent excavators from digging a pit for garbage above an aquifer containing the world’s purest waters. The lies of experts retained by Simcoe County were exposed when after the digging, the once pure water, showed signs of sediment. Now, claims by De Beers-paid experts of lack of future contamination are getting more skepticism as they appear to be merely pushing mining in the Ring of Fire.
Danny Beaton (Mohawk Six Nations), who played a major role in the defeat of Dump Site 41, has walked along the Attawapiskat. He has spoken to elders who told him of the horrible impact of mercury contamination on moose and polar bears.
Beaton explains that, “Mining companies can learn from traditional Cree elders in the James Bay Area, better known as the Swampy Cree or Oji-Cree. They know the territory and the watershed better than any scientist doing research. After generations or hundreds of years living off the land, their food base and traditional diet was one hundred percent at one time. Now diabetes, heart problems and suicide are killing elders and youth at one of the highest rates in the world
Communities are in the Amazon Rainforest because indigenous people were living in harmony with Mother Earth with a rich food supply. Western ideology has crippled the thinking and wisdom of indigenous people, that they are now involved in profit sharing oil, minerals, forestry and mega projects that alter the ecosystems of the world. Some nuclear energy deals may be no more, but these deals happen behind closed doors as is the infrastructure of Northern Ontario by overzealous profit-seekers or misguided developers.
The old Cree elders would say, ‘Danny, our whole watershed is polluted all the way to James Bay, everything happens in our groundwater. Our polar bears, moose, seals and whales have disappeared from mercury poison; our fish have been spoiled for us Cree to eat. In some places, even our berries are toxic and our own species are eating them. Our drinking water can be cancerous now like cities in the south. If they continue to pillage our land and waters, forests, animals, fish life for diamonds, gold and silver we will not be able to survive on our homelands, our traditional land base of our ancestors for generations. De Beers are going into our schools now and promoting mining and forestry to our youth. How can we save our way of life?’”
One result of the outrage sparked by the elders, is the emergence of the Friends of the Attawapiskat River. It is a community-led organization of elders and Cree and Ojibway band members from the vast Attawapiskat Drainage Basin. It is mobilizing participation in the Federal Environmental Assessment.
Unlike the Provincial Environmental Assessment, which is narrowly focused on the potential impact of the Webequie Supply Road and the Marten Falls Community Access Road, the federal review is looking at potential impacts of actual mining, such as mercury contamination. The Friends are being represented legally by the Canadian Environmental Law Association (CELA), and its Northern Services Legal Counsel, Kerrie Blaise.
In their presentation to the federal review, the Friends stated that they recognize “that the Attawapiskat River has been our provider … It is where community members go to harvest food and trees to make shelter, and follow the wildlife, as it migrates along the water. The water is part of life and is the veins of Mother Earth. The ecosystem is part of this, with its own purpose which we respect without question.”
The Friends warn that once the region’s waters are “disturbed, we have no means of reversing it to its present state - to the way it was before resource development. If developed, the Ring of Fire will have a hugely negative impact on our way of life, existence and livelihoods. We do not own the land, but rather have a responsibility to ensure we live in harmony with it, its animals and water, this is how we survive.”
De Beers' insistence that any mercury found near its now closed diamond mine is of natural sources, illustrates the Friends’ point about the fragile interconnected nature of the Hudson Bay Wetlands. Disturbance of wetlands can trigger mercury release. These peat lands are a vast carbon sink, the earth’s refrigerator at a dangerous time of human-induced climate change. They contain a water volume similar to that of the entire Great Lakes.
Dominated by traditional elders with an intense knowledge and love of their lands, the Friends have an understanding of what in the past, was ridiculed by mining boosters as “muskeg.” In actual Cree, as opposed to corruptions of the language, this is termed “mushkeg.” Guided by native elders, the Friends explain how “in mushkeg, water flows under the land.” Fish also travel “under the land” by making use of tunnels carved within the mushkeg. As one elder described, “we are a water people. The swamps and lakes create mushkeg — it’s a being.” Another community member remarked, “the mushkeg is living and breathing. For us, it is our Amazon. It cleans the air, the water — it’s a big lung and filter for everything.”
The Friends’ efforts to keep mining out of the mushkeg are supported by the Cree Neskantaga Band. On March 3, 2020, its Chief Chris Moonias, stated that the roads being proposed by the Ontario government were a threat to the Attawapiskat River. He termed the River the lifeblood of his nation’s culture and way of life.
The Neskantaga community’s website proclaims how it is “closely tied to its land, nestled within one of the most beautiful and pure ecological backdrops in North America. Surrounded by healthy boreal forests, eskers mostly untouched for thousands of years, and a labyrinth of fresh water as far as the eye can see, the environment setting is nothing short of breathtaking.”
An additional insult to the Neskantaga Cree is that the location proposed for the bridge over the Attawapiskat is where the community was located for over a century until the1970s. This is an important cultural location for the nation containing sacred burial sites.
The battle over the Ring of Fire has the signs of a potential constitutional crisis. There is a danger that the provincial government will attempt to build roads through a gutted process before the federal review is completed. The stakes are high — if roads and mining in the Ring of Fire take place and peat land drying occurs, encouraging more severe forest fires, the consequences for Ontario’s greenhouse gas emissions could be greater than any reduction plan the province might make.
Photo credit: Danny at Attawapiskat River Oct 16, 2016 taken by Mike Booy Mohawk Nation.