By J. Hadji Bonzon
(CNN) – The province of Ontario is trying to convince the federal government to approve a new gold mine. While this may not seem like news, the name of the company behind it is precisely what is significant.
Weyerhaeuser lands in the town of Timmins, Ontario, as part of what is called the Timmins Muskoka region.
Located on the east coast of Lake Huron, the region used to be home to many Cree (Lag Shawnee) people and comprises of 150 communities including both Cree and First Nations.
What happened next, though, was incredibly consequential and more than 20 years later, the damage remains evident.
“I was one of the lucky ones,” Woebeg Lake Cree Chief Bill Black said about the incident in a CBC documentary “Fighting Beaver,” describing how he escaped with his children while some died in the mine.
“The people on the other side, they weren’t as lucky. Many people had their babies — and children — come out of there dead. Thousands of people had their babies come out of there.”
There are approximately 250 SAGD sites in Canada and an unknown number in the United States. SAGD stands for supergraphic azimuthal pressure. It’s a technology that uses mercury gas, gas made up of methylmercury, to extract minerals.
Each pound of mercury can take up to 10 years to recover from the mine site, but the amount recovered and destroyed could have a disastrous effect on local communities.
The SAGD technology is not new — it’s a method the region was expecting to switch over to in the early 20th century — but instead of being viewed as an innovation it’s been identified as a terrible environmental and health problem.
Seven-year timeline for mercury cleanup?
In a controversial decision, the Ontario government decided to partially close the SAGD mines in 2007, a move many local First Nations criticized. In February 2015, the federal government declared a moratorium on the SAGD mining in Ontario, but an estimated 50 SAGD mines remain in the region.
The way this issue looks from the outside is easy to understand: The Ontario government is asking the federal government to approve a major mine, a potentially risky decision for the environment and public health and health for Indigenous groups.
On the flip side, the First Nations communities and the larger Cree community are critical of the job opportunities offered and what they say is a lack of investment in education, housing and child care in many of the areas surrounding the SAGD mining. They claim the transfer of Canadian natural resources from the people to the corporations should have been completed in a more equitable manner and with in consultation.
They say the mining is taking place while Indigenous communities are waiting for consultation before deciding whether to allow the business.
Oshawa in greater Timmins and Sault Ste. Marie have started development of their own mining industry, but the community remains very wary. Local Cree are asking the federal government to commit to a seven-year timeframe for mercury cleanup.
Saskatchewan leaders are working with the federal government to speed up progress on safe mercury storage and recovery.
I believe if communities won’t put forth the efforts to work together, both from an environmental and health perspective, it’s just not going to happen, said Metis Nation-Manitoba Tribal Chair Glenda Hope of the Indigenous Gathering of Nations.