A judge has renewed a court injunction barring Wolastosqi land defenders from interfering with the activities of Northcliff Resources at the proposed Sisson molybdenum and tungsten mine near Napadogan.
The Sisson mine project has been proposed since 2008. Since 2017, Wolastosqi land defenders have maintained a camp at the proposed tailings dam site, which is the traditional hunting territory of the Wolastoqi.
The proposed Sisson mine project has not been supported by traditional Indigenous councils as well as most band councils. While six area band governments have signed accommodation agreements to benefit from the mine’s operation, these benefits would amount to only 9.8 per cent of revenues from the province’s provincial metallic mineral tax, a tiny fraction of a fraction of the mines’s total projected revenues.
Band governments have said these agreements were effectively coerced, signed with the understanding that the province may not renew tax sharing agreements necessary for bands’ essential services if the accommodations were not signed.
Canadian courts have ruled that Indigenous consent is not ultimately necessary for resource projects to proceed, so Indigenous governments who did not sign the agreements would receive no benefit from the mine if it were to go ahead. Chiefs have repeatedly emphasized that the accommodation agreements do not indicate their support for the mine.
In the face of this bureaucratic lose-lose, Wolastosqi land defenders opted to occupy the land directly to prevent the mine’s construction.
On August 29 at the Burton Courthouse, Justice Thomas Christie agreed with Northcliff that the injunction was in the interests of “safety” of all involved.
Counsel for land defenders Andrea Polchies and Nick Polchies argued for a modification of the injunction to allow for “peaceful obstruction of work” but the court responded that this term was undefined and continued the order as is.
The injunction was filed on August 24 after Nick Polchies, who lives on the site, confronted mine workers and their security escort.
In a heated but non-violent exchange, Polchies demanded they leave, given their work ultimately serves to destroy his home on the area proposed for mine development. Polchies’ mother, Andrea Polchies, also blocked an access road with her truck.
Currently, work consists of drilling to help determine the potential integrity of the mine’s tailing pond. The land defenders argue that this work comprises mine work and is not permitted.
A longer half-day hearing will be held in the months ahead, where this question will be examined. In the meantime, however, work on the bore holes will likely continue.
The mine’s contingent approval is still subject to federal and provincial environmental conditions. The Environmental Impact Statement by the company was heavily criticized by environmental groups. Among their concerns is that the company did not provide any plans or contingency for a tailings pond failure with massive discharge into the Naashwaak river system, such as overtopping as a result of heavy rainfall during the mine’s operation, decades during which climate change is anticipated to increase the frequency of intense weather. Even if overtopping did not occur, passive acid leaching from the entire site would still detrimentally impact the ecology of the Nashwaak.
The tailings pond would also require continuous maintenance and an extended decommissioning process after the mine’s closure. Toxic mine effluent would be drained out of the pond and into the mine pit, to be slowly treated and released into the Nashwaak system over a horizon of years if not decades. In the case of the mine’s bankruptcy, financial responsibility for this process may fall on the province, as abandoned mines often become the responsibility of the jurisdictions they occupy.
The economic case for the mine has also been questioned, with the grade of its ore has been noted as below industry average, putting the mine at higher risk of shutdown.
In his review of recent developments on the Sisson mine, Larry Wuest, ecologist and resident of the Upper Nashwaak who was also present at the August 29 hearing, considered the project’s economic outlook in recent years to have only dimmed further with rising costs of regulatory compliance. In the case of the mine’s insolvency, this may end up costing the province.
“The evidence suggests that it is time for the province to abandon this economically doomed, and ecologically destructive attempt to extract and exploit the low-grade mineral resources of the pristine Upper Nashwaak watershed, and to proceed to ally with the Indigenous title-holders of the land to develop a diversified economy based on the forest resources of the area in keeping with the Peace and Friendship Treaties of the 18th century,” said Wuest.
Land defenders are adamant they will stand against Sisson mine because it is an environmental catastrophe that will cause irreparable harm to the Naashwaak. As one of the last remaining uninterrupted and primarily undisturbed salmon spawning habitat within the Wolastqey’s traditional waterways, its damage or destruction would be a profound harm to the sovereignty and heritage of the Wolastqi people.
“The action is only beginning,” said Andrea Polchies as she left the courthouse on August 29, surrounded by supporters.
Rowan Miller is a recent MA graduate of UNB Political Science. He is a resident of the Wolastoq River valley and is deeply passionate about building a just and ecologically sustainable society.
Correction: We revised an earlier version of this article to be more clear about the tailings pond maintenance. Paragraphs 13 and 14 were revised on September 13, 2023 at 4:22 PM AT.