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Government ignored them, Council alleges

The battery plant is set to be in operation by 2026, spanning 170 hectares of land in the Monteregie, between Saint-Basile-le-Grand and McMasterville. Courtesy Northvolt

The Mohawk Council of Kahnawake (MCK) filed a lawsuit at Quebec Superior Court against the provincial and federal governments this week to demand both governments consult with them over the expected construction of a battery plant in the Monteregie. 

The lawsuit comes following repeated demands since October by the MCK to Quebec’s environmental ministry requesting consultations begin on their traditional land, court documents filed this Tuesday allege. They oppose the destruction of wetlands that will result from the plant’s construction.

At a meeting held on December 18 between the MCK and the province, a representative for Quebec’s environmental ministry told them they had already “taken the position that there is no duty to consult and accommodate the Mohawks of Kahnawake regarding the wetlands authorization,” according to the lawsuit filed, and that their “views were not needed and would not be considered.” 

The MCK was later notified by the ministry they would only be consulted on water withdrawals from the neighbouring Richelieu River.

Then on January 8, the ministry shared with the MCK in an email they’d be authorizing the project. Their refusal to consult comes despite the MCK being consulted by the province in 2022 for a housing project on the same lot of land, said Ross Montour, who leads the portfolio on Indigenous rights. That housing project was later rejected by the province.

“It’s a complete bypassing and failure on the part of both the federal and the provincial government to uphold the duty to consult,” Montour said. 

The factory for production of electric car batteries in the Monteregie region is set to be in operation by 2026, and will be located on 170 hectares of land between Saint-Basile-le-Grand and McMasterville.

Northvolt, the Swedish battery manufacturer behind the project, is also listed as a defendant in the lawsuit. It began cutting trees over a 17-hectare site in the McMasterville area last week. That pre-construction work was suspended following an order from a Quebec Superior Court judge, after a request for an injunction was filed last Thursday by an environmental group and three individuals who oppose the construction.

“There are some of the highest quality wetlands in the region there,” Montour said. “Multiple species at risk have been observed at Northvolt. One of them would be the spiny softshell turtle, as well as the least bittern (bird), which is also endangered. And a special concern is the snapping turtle. All of those would just be buried under the ground – they would just be killing turtles.”

The lawsuit launched by the MCK – which is separate from the injunction – is also demanding recognition that the provincial and federal governments failed in their duty to consult First Nations ahead of Quebec approving the project. The MCK also hopes the court will recommend amending existing legislation over the protection of wetlands to enforce consultations with Kahnawa’kehró:non over the use of their traditional territory in the future. 

Quebec judge hears request for injunction

The environmental group’s request for an injunction to put a temporary halt to the construction of the battery plant was heard at the Quebec Superior Court this Wednesday. The group – the Centre québécois du droit de l’environnement – argued in court the city Saint-Basile-le-Grand didn’t have the authority to sign off on trees being cut.

“The fact that the Mohawks were consulted for a previous project in the same location but not for the Northvolt project is another sign that important decisions about it were made without the adequate participation of stakeholders, and without enough transparency to them,” said Marc Bishai, the lawyer representing the group. 

In a statement to The Eastern Door, spokespeople for the province wrote Quebec is not obligated to consult with First Nations for all projects requiring approval from its environmental ministry.

“Ministers Charette and Lafrenière would like to point out that authorizations or projects that may be subject to consultation with Indigenous communities are analyzed on a case-by-case basis,” the office of Benoit Charette, Quebec’s environmental minister, and the office of Ian Lafrenière, minister for relations with First Nations and Inuit, wrote in a joint statement. 

“Discussions have taken place in recent weeks between government representatives and the Kahnawake community on this issue, and the Quebec government has shown it is open to maintaining dialogue as the Northvolt project carries on,” the statement added. 

Stéphanie Caron, who spoke on behalf of the province at Quebec Superior Court this week, made similar arguments, saying it’s up to the environmental ministry to decide which projects can get approved and which get blocked. The ministry is simply following the law, she argued then.

Asked to react to the province’s statement, Montour called it disingenuous, saying it’s “all spin.” Had the plant been proposed elsewhere, the MCK might have supported it, he said.

THE EASTERN DOOR also reached out to the federal government for comment, but had yet to hear back by deadline. 

A decision by Justice David R. Collier on whether to grant the injunction is expected this Friday or early next week. 

miriam@easterndoor.com 

This article was originally published in print on January 26, in issue 33.04 of The Eastern Door.

Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.

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Miriam Lafontaine is a reporter with the Eastern Door. Her work has appeared in Le Devoir, CBC Montreal, CBC New Brunswick as well as the Toronto Star.