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Saskatchewan peat moss mining project faces opposition from Indigenous communities, conservationists

A grassroots group in La Ronge, Sask., is hosting an online speaker series to raise awareness of the important of peat bogs. These wetland ecosystems, also known as muskeg, are being threatened with extraction
This article was originally published on The Northern Advocate.

A group opposed to a peat moss mining project south of La Ronge hopes to raise awareness through an online speaker series.

The group is holding an online speaker series featuring Elders and Indigenous conservation activists from northern Saskatchewan. They hope to raise awareness about the importance of peat bogs, or muskeg, to traditional ways of life and land-based food sources.

Quebec-based company Lambert Peat Moss Inc. raised the ire of some La Ronge area residents when it went public with a proposal to extract peat moss from four locations near the Lac La Ronge provincial park.

Eleanor Hegland, an educator at the Lac La Ronge Indian Band’s Bell’s Point Elementary School, spoke with the Northern Advocate on location in the muskeg south of La Ronge.

Hegland said the loss of muskeg caused by peat moss mining would disturb the ecological balance of the region and rob her descendants of their ability to live off the land.  She said she was ripped away from her home in the bush as a child and taken to residential school. Mining in the muskeg would be a repeat of the same colonialism that took her away from her land and put her in residential school as a child, she said.

“For us, we need this to survive. We still have lots of medicine in the muskeg that we use to keep us healthy,” Hegland said.

“For me, even being put in a residential school and taken out of my trapline as a young girl and I was sent to Prince Albert. In the Little Red River Park, that’s where I got my ability to think of home. The trees, the flowers and the different seasons. To me it was so powerful.”

Lambert sent a letter to La Ronge area residents last fall as part of the consultation process. The project would last 80-100 years and would be done in sections.

“It is important to note that an entire area is not all harvested at once. Rather, small areas are harvested and then reclaimed as the next area would be harvested,” the letter said.

“Lambert has developed procedures that increase peat productivity, while reducing the potential effects on the environment… Lambert will implement a progressive restoration process that will aim at restoring peat fields soon after they are no longer needed for the project.”

The company promised to implement a restoration plan that would “aim to re-establish vegetation cover and restore the movement and distribution of water” that Lambert said would lead to the return of peatland to its natural state.

Read more: The battle for the ‘breathing lands’: Ontario’s Ring of Fire and the fate of its carbon-rich peatlands

But residents who use the muskeg on a regular basis say they can’t wait that long. Nor do they believe that Lambert will be able to fully restore the area once it is mined.

One of the parcels of land intended for development is near Potato Lake, which is abundant in wild rice and is also used for recreation, fishing, trapping and the gathering of ingredients for medicines used by traditional healers.

WSP Consulting is conducting an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for Lambert.

Janna Foster-Willfong, a team lead in environmental impact assessments at WSP said in an email on Jan. 15 that the EIA cannot be submitted without a completed consultation and engagement report.

The report would need to show what activities were undertaken by Lambert, what input was received and how Lambert addressed or accommodated any concerns that were raised, she said.

“The wildlife and wildlife habitat, caribou, vegetation and socio-economic chapters are still underway. It will be a long while before the EIA will be finalized because there remains a lot of consultation and engagement to be completed,” Foster-Willfong said.

“Online consultation and engagement has been challenging and face-to-face meetings are so much better; therefore, much of the consultation and engagement is awaiting the return of in-person meetings.”

Local author and conservationist Miriam Korner, who runs her dog team and forages near Potato Lake, started a group called, For Peat’s Sake – Protecting Northern Saskatchewan Muskegs.

A Change.org petition launched by Saskatoon resident Chantal Barreda in October to oppose the project now has over 20,000 signatures.

“Feb. 2 was world wetlands day. The most important thing to realize is how important the wetlands are on a global scale. So if something in northern Saskatchewan is threatened it does not only concern the people in northern Saskatchewan. It concerns us all because this is a very effective and simple way to have a carbon sink,” Korner said.

“I think we need to start to look not just regionally in our areas but start to have an understanding of how our actions locally influence things on a global level. The peat has the ability to capture carbon but if that peat is taken it will actually be a carbon producer.

It turns from a carbon sink to a carbon producer and while that process is happening the peatlands are drying out. What that means for northern Saskatchewan is a higher risk of forest fires.”

 Shane Bird prepares a fire outdoors

For youth worker Shane Bird, spending time in the muskeg is an opportunity to strengthen his connection with the land. Photo: Michael Bramadat-Willcock / Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Shane Bird, a youth worker at the Northern Lights School Division and member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, rediscovered his connection to the land and his roots by spending time in the muskeg. Now he takes youth out on the land to make that same connection for themselves.

Bird spoke with the Northern Advocate while preparing a fire to make muskeg tea with a plant that grows in wetlands and is called maskêkopakwa in Cree.

“It’s to empower the youth with that knowledge so that they can pass it on to their future generations,” Bird said.

“I think it’s important because it’s our lost identity, it’s our connection to mother earth and to the land; to the water, the fire, the sun and the earth. It’s something that we have lost along the way through intergenerational trauma.”

One of the youths in Bird’s group is 19-year-old Tyrell Tremblay. Tremblay said that he has been coming to the muskeg since he was a boy with his family.

“This is where we do a lot of hunting and a lot of our medicines come from the muskeg. I want my kids to experience it and to hunt on these lands and to gather medicine from it. There’s a lot of flu going around and we need our medicine,” Tremblay said.

“They are taking our medicine away and affecting our people’s mental health. Keep in mind that you’re affecting a whole community, you’re affecting a lot of people when you destroy this. It would disconnect me from my land and my way of life. This is all medicine right here and it helps with your mental health being out here. It’s therapeutic.”

Reconnecting with her traditional way of life through the muskeg helped Hegland heal from her experience in residential school. She wants youth like Tremblay to maintain their connection to the same land that she was so violently taken away from.

“It’s so important that the youth learn this and we want our future generations to have the same inherent right that we had to the heritage of the beautiful land, clean water, muskegs and the birds and the animals so that they’ll be able to sustain themselves,” Hegland said.

“I’m here because it’s my heritage to protect the land. It was left to me clean and it provided all the things I needed. So I want to protect the environment and the water and to teach the young people that the land provides for us and the planet earth is for all of us.”

To attend the speaker series you can visit the group’s Facebook page called, For Peat’s Sake – Protecting Northern Saskatchewan Muskegs.

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We hear it time and time again:
“These are the stories that need to be told and you are some of the only ones telling them,” John, a new member of The Narwhal, wrote in to say.

Investigating stories others aren’t. Diving deep to find solutions to the climate crisis. Sending journalists to report from remote locations for days and sometimes weeks on end. These are the core tenets of what we do here at The Narwhal. It’s also the kind of work that takes time and resources to pull off.

That might sound obvious, but it’s far from reality in many shrinking and cash-strapped Canadian newsrooms. So what’s The Narwhal’s secret sauce? Thousands of members like John who support our non-profit, ad-free journalism by giving whatever they can afford each month (or year).

But here’s the thing: just two per cent of The Narwhal’s readers step up to keep our stories free for all to read. Will you join the two per cent and become a member of The Narwhal today?

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