In May, about 150 km northeast of Winnipeg, near where the Manigotagan River empties into Lake Winnipeg, a group of CPT members sat around a sacred fire with Indigenous land defenders under the shade of towering jack pines.
Around the fire, Marcel Hardisty, a Hollow Water First Nation member and former band councillor, told us about his people’s sacred relationship with the land and the spiritual significance of the fine white silica sand common to this area. In the springtime, thunder beings energize the sand, he said. Lightning strikes fuse the sand into glass crystals that his people use in ceremonial rattles and burial practices.
We were meeting at the place where, on a bitingly cold winter night in 2019, a handful of young people from Hollow Water First Nation erected a tipi and kindled a sacred fire on the site of a proposed silica sand mine. Calgary-based Canadian Premium Sand planned to operate the open pit mine 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 54 years, mining 12 acres of land per year to extract silica sand for use in hydraulic fracturing. Canadian Premium Sand had gained approval for the project by signing a $250,000 benefit agreement with Hollow Water First Nation’s five-member chief and council without the consent of the broader community.
Many community members opposed the sand mine and wanted to protect the forest where moose give birth and people run traplines and gather medicines. Camp Morningstar quickly grew to include several tents, an outhouse, a sweat lodge and a meeting place. Supporters came from nearby communities, including Bloodvein, Brokenhead, Seymourville, Manigotagan, and Winnipeg. Environmental groups like the Wilderness Committee and Manitoba Energy Justice Coalition also supported the camp. The protest succeeded in stalling development on the mine until the market for fracked gas shifted and Canadian Premium Sand suspended the project.
It was a victory for the community organizers. But a year later, Canadian Premium Sand returned with a new proposal. Now they plan to mine the nearby shore of Lake Winnipeg, close to four communities and 300 cottagers. The company intends to use the glass to make solar panels.
Marcel and others fear for the health of the water, the land, and the people if the mine goes ahead. The sand acts as a filter to all the waterways in the region, Marcel told us. Silica dust is a carcinogen and can cause silicosis, a disease of the lungs. A silica sand mine operated for decades on Black Island in Lake Winnipeg. Marcel’s people once lived on Black Island. They called it Manitou Minis, which he translates as “great mystery island.” They were moved off of the island to make way for the mine. Today on the island, leached metals stain the sand dunes orange, streams run violet, and chocolate-coloured water stagnates in pools.
“We aren’t radicals,” says MJ McCarron, a teacher who married into the Hollow Water community. She has two sons who are members of Hollow Water First Nation, one of whom has worked with silica sand and knows its dangers.
“People gather medicines in this forest,” she says. In an NFB video documentary produced by Anishinabe filmmaker Kevin Settee, an elder from Hollow Water talks about gathering bearberry, Labrador tea, strawberries and blueberries. “If this land is turned into a sand mine, we’re going to lose all those medicines we need for our own healing,” she says.
The global appetite for the minerals needed in the green energy transition is expected to increase in the years to come. Projects such as this one are often discussed as a balancing act, weighing one public good against another. Jobs, economic development, and minerals for clean energy are one side of the scale and the health of the land and waterways and land-based cultures are on the other.
Potawatomi scholar and biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer likes to remind her fellow humans that the technological fixes we come up with are never as good as the ones nature provides. Millions of dollars are spent on researching and developing carbon capture technology. “There already is a system that pulls carbon from the atmosphere and stores it for centuries,” Kimmerer said at a recent talk. This system can “generate oxygen, build soil, protect biodiversity, purify water and make us feel happy and peaceful. It’s called a forest.”
At Camp Morningstar we shared a feast that came from the waters of Lake Winnipeg: a casserole of pickerel cheeks seasoned with lemon and baked in cream sauce.
We shared food and gifts and stories and prayers.
“Everything we have in order to live as human beings comes from Mother Earth,” Marcel told us. “So we have to protect it. That is who we are as people. We are the land.”