Consensus seems further away than ever among residents of Waswanipi on Chief John Kitchen’s proposed $5.8-million sawmill project.

Sixty to 70 people attended a tense public hearing into the sawmill held by the COMEX environmental panel on June 6 in the community’s arena.

The hearing, which lasted from 1:30 to 6:30 p.m., was punctuated by shouts from audience members yelling out: “When are you going to approve it?”

Other audience members raised concerns about the sawmill in presentations to the panel’s five members (two Cree reps and three from the Quebec government).

The hearing was kicked off by presentations from the sawmill’s chief promoters, Chief Kitchen and Peter Gull, president of the band-owned Waswanipi Mishtuk Corporation. Mishtuk is proposing to build the sawmill in a joint project with the forestry giant Domtar.

Afterwards, Kitchen and Gull were asked many questions about the project by residents. The panel also heard presentations from 10 or 15 residents. According to observers, most seemed to have reservations about the sawmill. Only two or three of those who spoke had no concerns the project at all. “Opinions were quite mixed,” commented Hervé Chatignier, COMEX’s secretary.

Concerns were voiced about the sawmill’s environmental and social impacts and about other questions not directly related to the project. The compensation agreements that Domtar has offered to tallymen harmed by forestry were one area of concern. Residents wondered if these agreements undermine the collective rights of Crees.

Questions were also voiced about a court case on mercury pollution that Waswanipi has fought against Domtar for many years. Now, the case is suddenly being settled out of court.

COMEX will make a recommendation shortly on whether the sawmill should get the green light. The recommendation will be sent to Waswanipi’s environmental coordinator, Irene Neeposh, who will make the final decision.