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In Vivian, Anola and Springfield, it’s not as simple as it seems

In this week’s newsletter, Manitoba reporter Julia-Simone Rutgers takes you through thigh-high snow to a four-generation family home that sits next door to a big sand mine project
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A family of five: Georgina (left), Wesley, Hunter, Callie, and Josh Mustard on their property near Anola, Man., with snow on the ground
It’s a story you’ve heard before: the mining executives vs. the community members fighting to keep an extractive industry out of their backyard. 

This time, it’s playing out in small agricultural towns across rural Manitoba — and it’s not as simple as it seems.

I’m Julia-Simone Rutgers, The Narwhal’s Manitoba reporter — part of a partnership with the Winnipeg Free Press to increase coverage of the environment in the province. 

This week I’m giving you a behind-the-scenes look at the fight over the province’s place in a cleaner economy.

Residents of Vivian, Anola, Springfield and other tiny Manitoba communities have spent the last seven years working to stop Sio Silica, a Calgary company hoping to extract more than a million tonnes a year of pure silica sand from an aquifer 200 feet below ground. 

Silica sand is increasingly recognized as a key building block in solar panels and other clean technologies. 

“This is a resource that answers all the needs of decarbonization and the environmental goals that the world is working towards,” the company’s chief operating officer, Brent Bullen, told me.

But the community is steadfast: mining doesn’t belong in freshwater — period — and this out-of-province company’s untested extraction method poses grave and permanent risks to their land, air and, most importantly, drinking water.

“Water is the basis of life,” Vivian resident Josh Mustard said when I visited his family home. “Once it’s destroyed, it stays destroyed.”

I first met Josh’s wife, Georgina Mustard, at hearings hosted by the Manitoba clean environment commission — hearings packed with lawyers, executives, residents and plenty of intense emotions. Georgina gave a passionate speech opposing the mine, as did three of her and Josh’s eight children. A few weeks later, I found myself trudging a path through thigh-high snow in the small tangle of woods that now separates their 116-acre property from the massive clearing where Sio Silica already has the OK to build a processing plant to wash, dry and ship sand on the nearby CN railway.
 
Georgina and Josh Mustard traipse through the brush to show where a proposed sand processing site borders their property near Anola
The Mustards have lived on this land for four generations. But a major industrial plant moving in next door has forced Josh, Georgina and their eight children to think differently about their future. 

Residents like the Mustards are afraid. They’re afraid new mining and manufacturing will completely change the fabric of the community they love. They’re afraid the mining process will permanently contaminate their drinking water. They’re afraid no one will be held accountable if, or when, something goes wrong. And they’re afraid they’ll be forced into the impossible choice to either live with the consequences of industrial activity or leave their home — their sanctuary — behind.

At its core, the debate over the silica sand mine touches on the question of the next phase of our global relationship to energy production: how do we extract the resources needed for a new, clean economy without repeating the environmental disasters of the past?

I spent months following this story, attending hearings in different small towns and meeting community members at their homes. I wanted to include as many perspectives as possible — I reached out to Peguis First Nation, Brokenhead Ojibway Nation and the Manitoba Métis Federation (I didn’t hear back), phoned experts and spent weeks trying to secure an interview with Sio Silica’s executives (persistence pays off!). This is a complicated story, and one that impacts everyone differently. It’s also one that can’t be told overnight.

It will be many more weeks until the community has some answers. The commission will have their conclusions come summertime. Manitoba’s environment minister will have to make a decision about Sio Silica soon after. The community hopes their voices will be taken into consideration; they hope their futures will be secured.

I’ll be there to see how the chips fall.

Take care and keep asking questions,

Julia-Simone Rutgers
Manitoba reporter

 
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A view of Skwelwil’em (the Squamish estuary) in Sḵwx̱wú7mesh territory.

From problems to solutions


The belief in a better way of doing things is at the heart of much of The Narwhal’s reporting. 

Across Canada, we have reported on Indigenous-led conservation efforts in the wake of a climate crisis. B.C. reporter Steph Kwetásel’wet Wood and photojournalist Taylor Roades captured the Mamalilikulla First Nation’s journey to protect land and biodiversity without waiting for colonial governments to hop on board. Steph, together with photojournalist Jesse Winter, also detailed Squamish Nation’s 50-year effort to bring salmon back to a fractured estuary. And freelance reporter Jimmy Thomson used as many tools as possible — interactive maps, stunning photos and drone footage — to highlight the work of Indigenous Guardians along B.C.’s coastline.

The Canadian Journalism Foundation has named The Narwhal as a finalist for its 2023 Climate Solutions Reporting Award, recognizing our efforts to “challenge stereotypes and shift narratives from problems to solutions.” Thanks for joining us as we search for solutions.

 

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