It isn’t often that youth from Nemaska’s Luke Mettaweskum High School participate in a community meeting about local mining projects, and it’s even more rare that they receive a standing ovation for the effort. But that’s what happened October 9 at the Nemaska band office.
That afternoon, the students were supposed to attend a dance class. But Youth Fusion program coordinator Lexis Beattie, who arrived in Nemaska in September in an effort to reduce dropout rates, had a different idea. He knew that Nemaska Lithium Inc. was holding a meeting to discuss its mine proposal 20 kilometres outside of the community.
“I was like, ‘Hey, what do you think of going to the lithium mine meeting?’” said Beattie. “I figured three or four people would come, but 15 showed up. When we got there, we made up the vast majority of people present.”
Students came for different reasons. Some knew nothing about the mine and wanted basic information, others had some information and wanted more, while still others were angry about the project. On the other hand, went to support the development. Many had opinions and questions, but once they arrived and discovered it was an open forum, were shy to step up to the microphone. However, encouragement from their peers helped them overcome their reticence.
The youth involvement may have been in part due to a significant step in the students’ political development at Luke Mettaweskum High School. With Beattie’s encouragement, the school recently established its first student council, called the Core after a suggestion by 15-year-old student Brittany Moar.
“That’s because Nemaska is the heart of the Cree Nation,” Moar explained. “The heart sounded kind of cheesy to me, so we named it the Core, because it sounded more suitable. And students are the core of the school. The student council gives us the power to organize events and have more fun.”
Moar’s family has a camp in the area of the proposed mine and is concerned about what will happen to it. “I go there every summer,” she said. “I was pissed off, in all honesty. I’m worried about [tailings] getting into the water. I asked what would be good and bad about the mine, but I didn’t get an answer. They were only talking about what would be good, about how it would make money.”
Savannah Jolly’s family also has nearby hunting camps. She asked the mining company to explain what the pros and cons of the project would be, but said she was unhappy with their response.
“They only really explained [what would be] good about the mine,” she said. “The bad part was very generic. I wanted details, and they were just, like ‘Um, maybe the blasting.’ They only gave small details about each thing. Dust, and stuff like that. It didn’t clear up much for me.”
Jolly left the meeting feeling that the mining company was hiding something. “I don’t feel too good about the mine,” she said.
Meanwhile, 12-year-old Brandon Jolly said he knows that lithium is used in batteries and in cellular phones, but he is still concerned that the material will be mined on traditional Cree lands.
“I asked them ‘How will [the mine] affect the youth?’ They wouldn’t answer my question,” said Jolly. “It sounded like they were doing it for the money. So then I asked, ‘Is this just all about money?’”
Despite his frustration with what he felt were evasive answers by the company, Jolly was proud that he had participated in the meeting.
“I’m probably the first 12-year-old to speak up in a meeting,” said Jolly, who added that he might one day consider going into Cree politics.
Despite the students’ tough questions, all of those gathered gave the students a standing ovation at the end of the meeting.
“The deputy chief said it was the first time in Nemaska history that youth were involved in this way,” Beattie said.
Deputy Chief Thomas Jolly points out that a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the mine was signed between Nemaska Lithium Inc. and the Grand Council of the Crees in 2010, and that later that year the Cree Nation of Nemaska – through the Nemaska Development Corporation – invested $600,000 in shares of Nemaska Lithium Inc.
“We’re not quite certain how it’ll turn out,” said Jolly, “but we’re very pressed for time – we’re only a matter of weeks away for the community or council to make a decision. Anything can happen between now and the council meeting to allow us to know where we’re going with this. Beyond meetings, some people have suggested a referendum. That direction hasn’t been taken, but we’re certainly pressed for time, due to the Cree Naskapi Act. You have to conform to those rules if you wish to act in that manner.”
Nonetheless, Deputy Chief Jolly says he’s very impressed with the young people from the Core student council who spoke their minds about the mine proposal.
“They were very straightforward,” he said. “It even stunned some of the people, the kind of questions these kids were asking. But everybody must be heard. If the mine does take place in a couple of years, they’re going to be of legal age to participate. And right now, they have a better foresight than some adults.”