While the community of Mistissini has once again requested a “pause” in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and permitting process granting Strateco the rights to build an exploration ramp deep into the Otish Mountains, the federal government has given the mining company a green light, making them one step closer to breaking ground.

Given Mistissini’s opposition to the Matoush project, local residents feel this might be a real test of the Cree Nation Mining Policy. Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio has said his community cannot support this project until all questions have been answered and then they would make an informed decision on the project.

In the meantime, Shecapio asked federal administrator Elaine Feldman to invoke a six-month “pause” in Strateco’s licensing process until such time that community members feel that they have been adequately informed of the risks of the project.

On December 23, Mistissini signed a Communications and Information Agreement (CIA) with the mining company to address many of the outstanding issues that were outlined in the federal review of the EIA for the project in terms of communicating the risks involved in the exploration.

Following that, on January 25, Shecapio sent a letter to Feldman outlining the details of the CIA and the community’s desire to evaluate for themselves after six months as to whether the public has been sufficiently informed about the risks of the project.

According to Shecapio, by no means could the signing of the CIA be interpreted as Strateco actually having the community’s support.

Much to his dismay, on February 2, Feldman announced that she and Minister of the Environment Peter Kent had rendered positive decisions for Strateco, giving the company the go-ahead to obtain a license for advanced exploration. Though this is not the final word as the province of Quebec has yet to throw its support behind the project, having federal backing makes the project that much more likely to happen.

Shecapio told the Nation that he remained concerned and disappointed that the project has been able to proceed and he feels that Feldman has completely ignored the community’s requests.

“It is clear to me that either the government was given an incorrect version of our support or more precisely lack thereof or misinterpreted the information that was provided. Whether this was intentional or not is not worthy of speculation and our position is to give both parties the benefit of the doubt,” said Shecapio.

He went on to say that consultation and communication are very different from social acceptability, and that Mistissini remains adamant that this project should not proceed until the community has sufficient information upon which to determine social acceptability. In other words, the CIA doesn’t mean that Strateco has merited the “social licensing” that was listed as necessary in the Federal Review Panel South report issued in July.

While Feldman stated in her approval there were seven conditions, all of which pertain to the CIA and include objectives like hiring a liaison for the community as well as a community manager, creating a new office in Mistissini, creating panels with joint membership from the community and the company.

While Strateco has to meet every clause laid out in the CIA, they will now also have to report back to the federal administrator in six months and then again in a year to show that all of the demands have been met.

According to Strateco’s President Guy Hébert, this process has already begun.

He was also quick to say that Mistissini’s request for a pause is doing nothing other than creating a lot of “confusion,” as their request for a “pause” is old news. According to Hébert, the community made the same request back in September and this has already made for several months of delay. He went on to say that Shecapio’s most recent letter simply rehashes the one from the fall.

“They have created confusion here, and created it for our shareholders. We have now received so many questions from them,” said Hébert.

Eager to get the project underway, Hébert said Strateco is anxious to meet every objective laid out in the agreement.

Having invested several months in analyzing the EIA to take part in the review process alongside the community, Mining Watch Canada’s Ramsey Hart said that Strateco is showing the government the CIA as evidence of actual social licensing instead of gaining Mistissini’s actual support for the process.

“It’s not a big surprise, given the panel’s report, that the federal government just went along with that. But it is disconcerting given the ongoing opposition from the Mistissini Cree and the outstanding concerns around environmental protection and baseline data that exist.”

Hart went on to say that the federal government is currently pursuing an aggressive pro-industry/development agenda as its mandate and the evidence of this can be seen across Canada with projects like the controversial Enbridge Northern Gateway Project.

Hart’s take on social acceptability of mining operations is “it is a case of paying lip service to what should be a fundamental aspect of project approval. It is getting PR and from the proponent for the regulators of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission and the Ministry of the Environment, in terms of trying to appease people by saying that we won’t go anywhere without the company gaining social license.”

In his opinion, Ottawa is “clearly not willing to impede on a corporation’s ability to develop a project when they in fact haven’t proven that it has social license.”

Hart warned that in the end, the path the government is taking is a very dangerous one.

“What I hope that industry can understand is that the path the government is taking is not going to do them any favours in the long run. It’s not going to build trust, it will create a lot of negative perspectives about the industry and the sincerity with which they use terms like social licensing, consent and consultation and sustainability… If you don’t practice what you preach people will stop believing in you and it will be very hard to gain that trust back,” said Hart.

While federal approval has been granted to Strateco, what remains to be seen Quebec’s decision in the review process as the project cannot proceed without it.

In terms of what the Cree and their supporters can do to get the project halted, Hart recommended that the Crees take a page from their own history.

“Certainly there are non-legal mechanisms to become active on having something like this not happen. Having a communications strategy and letting investors know that this is only about exploration at this phase and so if there is an aggressive communications campaign like the one the Crees had against the Great Whale project, it can certainly throw a wrench in Strateco’s plans,” said Hart.

As for Mistissini, Shecapio will continue to vie so that the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission does not grant Strateco a permit without satisfying the needs of the community, particularly when it comes to their health, safety and rights as granted by the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement.

“The Cree Nation of Mistissini is open to development, however we will have to be vigilant in giving a voice to the water, to the trees and our animals as their cries will go unanswered if we fail to act. For Crees and Canadians alike, more focus needs to be placed on the environment that we will leave to future generations. This is well expressed in Section 22 of the JBNQA,” said Shecapio.