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Kanesatake hung out to dry on cement plant

Courtesy Colacem Canada

The government appeared unmoved by a letter submitted by Mohawk Council of Kanesatake (MCK) grand chief Victor Bonspille in December asserting the community’s right to be consulted on a potentially harmful cement plant project slated for L’Orignal, Ontario.

Bonspille’s letter, sent to environment and climate change minister Steven Guilbeault, who oversees the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada (IAAC), raised environmental and health concerns on Kanesatake’s behalf. The site of the future Colacem Canada cement plant is only about 50 KM upstream from the community.

According to IAAC spokesperson Anna Pittas, the province of Ontario gave instructions to Colacem about consulting First Nations communities that could be impacted by the project, including Kanesatake. Yet, according to Bonspille and former MCK chief Serge Otsi Simon, substantive consultations have never taken place.

“I think it’s just another attempt at covering the issues with another smokescreen and throwing dirt in our face. It’s unacceptable,” said Bonspille.

The issue was flagged to Bonspille by Action Champlain, a concerned citizens group opposed to the Colacem project. In August 2022, Action Champlain asked Guilbeault’s office to reverse a 2019 decision by the previous environment minister, Catherine McKenna, to decline to designate the cement plant under the Canadian Environmental Assessment Act (CEAA). 

However, the August request was denied, with the government citing a lack of material changes to the project.

In addition to triggering a more thorough analysis of the project’s impact, a designation under the CEAA would have required a coordinated consideration on the project’s impact on Indigenous communities, but the government has argued existing mechanisms are enough.

“With respect to public and lndigenous participation, I am satisfied that provincial processes, including the municipal planning amendment process, provide opportunities for participation,” wrote McKenna in a 2019 letter explaining the decision not to designate the project under the CEAA.

“It’s another way of the government taking their responsibility away and putting it on another individual or a company,” said Bonspille. “Either way, both the government and the company are responsible to approach First Nations on consultations when operating or doing any type of project or anything in their territory.”

He noted that the area on which the plant will be built is well within Kanesatake’s ancestral lands.

“It just seems again we’re being pushed aside and we’re being told we’re not going to be affected when most likely we are, maybe not directly right away, but eventually it’s going to affect us. We’re downriver from it,” said Bonspille.

He described himself as unhappy with a response he received from Terence Hubbard, president of the IAAC, and has followed up requesting more information and a history of correspondence between the agency and the MCK under Simon.

“If it doesn’t meet my satisfaction, I’m going to request a sit-down with them to have a real discussion on this,” said Bonspille.

“Kanesatake is downriver and downwind from the cement plant,” said Gary Champagne, an organizer with Action Champlain. “Pollution will be coming out of its chimney and potentially in the Ottawa River, which is less than a mile from where their plant will be located.”

According to Champagne, the plant’s chimney will be 35 storeys high – the tallest freestanding structure in the region. “They didn’t build it that high for nothing,” Champagne said. “They built it that way for the emissions to go downstream, downwind. That means into Quebec, into Kanesatake, into Montreal, etc. That alone should justify the federal government getting involved.”

He added that a drain on the property would circulate water that will find its way into the Ottawa River.

“We think minister Guilbeault was ill-advised by his environmental impact assessment agency, and we’re going to be asking him to please reassess this decision,” Champagne added.

Champagne argues that a subsequent amalgamation of properties owned by Colacem Canada should be sufficient for the government to reassess its 2019 determination about the designation.

L’Orignal, Ontario, is part of the Township of Champlain, which in turn is part of the United Counties of Prescott and Russell (UCPR). The Township of Champlain voted to reject a rezoning request that made the project possible, but it was outvoted by other UCPR municipalities in 2016.

“If you read any level of reports in regards to pollution, cement plants are number one for pollution,” said Township of Champlain mayor Normand Riopel.

He suggested the environmentally-conscious community is worried about potential health issues stemming from the plant’s operations. “We are very concerned about what this would cost to our community,” he said.

He added that Kanesatake’s help in fighting against the project is welcomed by Township of Champlain residents. 

“In my personal opinion, it’s very well-received,” Riopel said.

Simon remembers being made aware of the project as early as 2016 and that around that time he attended a town hall to deride the project.

“I showed up by invitation to tell them this was unacceptable, that there’s a First Nation down the river this is going to impact and they haven’t said a word to us. I told them we were going to help fight this thing,” Simon said.

According to Simon, he brought the issue to MCK’s environment department and discussed the issue at Council, although Bonspille said he does not recall learning about the project prior to becoming grand chief.

“This is something that angered me so much I know I talked to the chiefs about it,” said Simon.

“The whole problem with Colacem is just like every other one. It’s industry moving at a pace that we can’t sustain,” he said. 

He said over his tenure as grand chief, consultations were frequently inadequate, with projects scarcely changing with community input.

Colacem Canada did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.

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Marcus is a journalist and managing editor of The Eastern Door, where he has been reporting since 2021 on issues that matter to Kahnawake and Kanesatake. He was previously editor-in-chief of The Link and a contributing editor at Our Canada magazine.