Trofim Modlyi is breathing a sigh of relief.
The 19-year-old, who is from Khabarovsk in eastern Russia, near the border with China, received notice at the end of 2022 that his claim for refugee status in Canada had been accepted.
“I no longer need to worry about going back to Russia. Obviously I felt, like, fully safe that I don’t need to go to Ukraine and take part in this war,” Modlyi said.
Modlyi was visiting his sister, Valeriia Granillo, in Grande Prairie, Alta., when Russia invaded Ukraine last February. Granillo, who moved to Canada in 2012 in search of better opportunities, now works in cancer care and is a Canadian citizen.
While he was in Canada, his parents received a conscription notice for him. That is when Modlyi said he decided to apply to become a refugee.
“There is no possibility for me to [go] home because I would be drafted [into] the war, and I don’t want to take part in it. I don’t want to kill innocent people in Ukraine,” he said.
Simon Yu, an immigration and refugee lawyer in Edmonton, worked with Modlyi on the claim. Modlyi was determined by the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) to be a Convention refugee — a status that is granted to someone who is outside their home country and is not able to return because of a “well-founded fear of persecution.”
“He and his sister and his parents back home strongly believed that if he goes back there, there would be a strong opportunity that he will be sent to the conflict area — he would be fighting in Ukraine,” the lawyer said.
Yu said the family provided newspaper articles that conscripts were being sent to the front lines and that the atrocities committed in Bucha, Ukraine, against civilians in the early days of the war involved soldiers from Modlyi’s region, all of which supported his refugee claim.
“It was a relief for me — and for both of them, too — because now we know that he doesn’t need to go back and face imminent danger, whether it’s a criminal prosecution by the government or being sent to fight in Ukraine,” Yu said.
Claims returning to pre-pandemic levels
The number of refugee claims from people from Russia are slowly returning to pre-pandemic levels.
Statistics from Canada’s IRB show that 115 people applied for refugee status between Feb. 24, 2022, the start of the war, to Nov. 30, 2022.
During the same time period in 2021, claims from 47 people were referred to the board, compared with 24 in 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and 96 in 2019.
Maria Popova, an associate professor at McGill University in Montreal who specializes in Russian politics, said Russia has had a very oppressive regime for at least 10 years that targeted political dissidents and LGBTQ individuals.
But she is surprised that the refugee claim numbers for 2022 are not higher.
“Launching a war of aggression like the Russian state has done against Ukraine, I would think that more people would have wanted to leave Russia as a sign of protest,” Popova said.
‘I miss my family’
Granillo, Modlyi’s sister, said the decision in favour of her brother’s refugee claim took a weight off her shoulders.
“All this time I’ve been thinking of him going back. What are we going to do?” she said.
But Granillo is clear that this is not how she hoped her brother would be able to stay in Canada.
“The price we pay as a humanity is so much,” she said, referring to the war. “How many people every day now are losing their lives?”
As for Modlyi, he is adjusting to his new life in Canada. He started working at a local McDonald’s, plays volleyball and wants to go back to school to become a pharmacist.
However, now that his claim has been accepted, Modlyi can never return to Russia, even if there is a regime change.
Granillo is hopeful, though, that, one day, she will be able to sponsor their parents to come to Canada so the family can be reunited.
“I miss my family. My mom and dad are still there,” Modlyi said. “That’s the only thing I missed about Russia, but hopefully we’ll see each other somewhere else.”
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Hailed as green energy source, northern Quebec lithium project divides Cree
NEMASKA, QUE. — Type the word “Nemaska” into a search engine and most results refer to Nemaska Lithium, the company that sought bankruptcy protection in 2019 before being partly bought out by the Quebec government’s investment agency. The episode resulted in tens of thousands of small investors losing significant savings.
However, Nemaska is above all a Cree community in the heart of the boreal forest, more than 1,500 kilometres from Montreal. They share their territory with a wide variety of species, and caribou herds have long visited the area, drawn by its abundance of lichen.
These fragile ecosystems are home to a multitude of threatened species that will soon have to deal with new visitors: starting in 2025, approximately 15 heavy trucks a day will roar through these ancestral hunting grounds carrying the thousands of tonnes of ore that Nemaska Lithium plans to mine.
According to the promoters, the region contains some of the world’s largest deposits of spodumene, a rock from which lithium — key to the energy transition and the electrification of transport networks — is extracted.
Nemaska Lithium describes itself as a corporation that “intends to facilitate access to green energy, for the benefit of humanity.”
The Whabouchi open pit mine will be located about 30 kilometres from the village of Nemaska, in the watershed of the Rupert River, considered one of Quebec’s ecological gems.
“If the water becomes contaminated by the mine, I don’t see how we can limit the damage to the food chain,” says Thomas Jolly, who was chief of Nemaska from 2015 to 2019, stressing the importance of fishing to his community.
Nemaska means “Place of Plentiful Fish,” and that is what led the Cree to build their community here in 1979 after a proposed Hydro-Québec dam project threatened to flood their ancestral village. (In the end, the Crown corporation chose to build its reservoirs elsewhere, and the flooding of Old Nemaska never occurred.)
“At the time, the Department of Indian Affairs wanted to impose another site on us, but it was partly a swamp … so we chose to settle here instead, where it’s dry, in a place where there is everything we need to hunt and fish,” Jolly said in an interview in Nemaska.
Various other Hydro-Québec projects have led to an increase in mercury levels in lakes and rivers near Nemaska, to the point where for some bodies of water, public health authorities recommend eating no more than two fish of certain species per month.
According to public health data, one of the waterways with the highest mercury levels is the Nemiscau River, which is also set to receive mine effluent from Nemaska Lithium.
“How much more contamination can these streams handle?” Jolly wonders.
He explains that history has taught him to be wary of the studies carried out by the mining company on the environmental impacts of lithium extraction. “Hydro-Québec said they didn’t know (the mercury contamination) would happen,” he says. “Come on!”
The construction of the mine will cause the elimination of a lake and a stream in addition to modifying several other bodies of water. In total, the negative effects on fish and fish habitat are estimated at 54,600 square metres, according to the Impact Assessment Agency of Canada, and Nemaska Lithium is working to implement a compensation plan for this loss of habitat.
The federal government’s approval of the mine comes with dozens of conditions, including protecting water quality. In an interview with The Canadian Press, Vincent Perron, the director of environment and stakeholder relations at Nemaska Lithium, says the company has “a very comprehensive and rigorous water quality monitoring program.”
Perron explains that Nemaska Lithium, among other things, is committed to verifying every three years “the level of heavy metals in the flesh of fish, starting during the construction of the mine and until the end of a five-year period following its closure.”
He stresses that “a water treatment plant will be installed to treat the excess drainage water before it is released into the Nemiscau River.”
Company documents show that 10 species of mammals with a special status — either threatened, vulnerable or at risk — may frequent the mine area, including the wolverine and the woodland caribou as well as various species of birds, such as the golden eagle.
The Impact Assessment Agency of Canada cited potential “habitat loss and fragmentation” for those species but said the impact would not be significant because of the availability of similar habitat nearby and mitigation measures proposed by the proponent.
For Jolly, regardless of mitigation measures, “it’s obvious” that animals will be negatively affected by the blasting, the extraction and transportation of ore. He wants the mine administrators to consider traditional Indigenous knowledge and not just “book science” in managing the risks.
“You, people from the south, when you talk about animals and plants, you use the word species,” he says, “but we call them educators.”
Nemaska Lithium says it wants its mine project to set a benchmark for environmental responsibility. Powered by renewable electricity from Hydro-Québec, it will be one of “the greenest lithium producers in the world,” says Perron.
The project will have “one of the lowest intensities of production in the world in terms of CO2 equivalent emissions from processing and transportation combined,” he said. “It is nearly three times lower than the global average, and more than six times lower than China.”
However, Jolly stresses that hydro power is not as green as some people make it out to be. The environmental impacts of large dams are considerable, he says, citing examples of entire communities that have had to relocate because of flooding. Hunting grounds were submerged and mercury levels shot up in fish, among other upheavals in the James Bay Cree’s traditional way of life.
The Quebec government has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in Nemaska Lithium. Premier François Legault, who wants Quebec to export electric vehicle batteries worldwide and be a leader in 21st-century transportation, considers the company “an important component of the green economy.”
Jolly questions why lithium mined from Cree lands should be a central part of the government’s plan to combat climate change. “Who is responsible (for the climate crisis)?” he asked. “Is it up to us to pay and suffer for what they have done?”
He says the project was approved by the band council without properly consulting the population, a critique echoed by another former chief, George Wapachee. In his book “Going Home”, published last fall, Wapachee writes that the decision to accept the lithium mine “was made without the approval of community members.”
But while many in Nemaska are worried about the mine, it also gives hope to those who see it as an important tool for economic development. At a hearing in 2015, former Chief Matthew Wapachee presented a petition that included about 100 signatures in support of the project.
“Nemaska Lithium should be commended in recognizing and ensuring that this partnership is founded on mutual trust, protection of the environment and respect of Cree rights and traditional way of life,” Matthew Coon Come, who was then grand chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, said in a press release at the time.
Even though some in Nemaska say they were not sufficiently informed about the mine project, Nemaska band council spokesperson Laurence Gagnon maintains that the community was regularly consulted at annual general meetings. The council accepted the project “100 per cent for the economic benefits,” she said in an interview.
She said the village is expected to receive annual royalties. “We are talking about several million dollars over 30 years for the community,” she said. This money “returns to our citizens for better infrastructures, better services.”
Current Chief Clarence Jolly was among the elected officials who in 2014 voted to ratify the agreement with the mine.
Over a period of several months, The Canadian Press made numerous attempts to speak with him to discuss the impacts of the mine and its social acceptance, but he declined all requests. Gagnon explained the chief’s refusal by noting that the lithium mine was “a sensitive subject” that he preferred “not to discuss during an election period.”
The chief offered to provide an interview after the community elections later this month.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.
Stéphane Blais received the support of the Michener Foundation, which awarded him a Michener–Deacon Investigative Journalism fellowship in 2022 to report on the impact of lithium extraction in northern Quebec.
Stéphane Blais, The Canadian Press
Indigenous history class for lawyers justified and more common in Canada: experts
EDMONTON — As Alberta’s Law Society seeks to defend rules that require members to take a course on Indigenous issues, experts say such measures are common elsewhere in Canada and are well-grounded in legal rationale.
“It is increasingly common that law societies across the country are requiring continuing education in certain particular areas” that include cultural awareness, said Trevor Farrow of York University’s Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto.
“The law is continually changing,” said Jeremy Webber of the University of Victoria’s law school.
“The reason for the requirement is to ensure that a lawyer does not continue to practice their area of law as though it were the 1980s.”
The Law Society of Alberta is to vote Monday on a motion that would suspend the group’s ability to require its members to undertake continuing education. The vote is a response to a petition from 51 lawyers concerned about The Path, a five-part course on Indigenous history and culture that follows one of the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report.
One signatory to the petition, Glenn Blackett, has called the course “political indoctrination” and compared it to a cancer infecting the roots of Canada’s legal system.
“The vitriol directed at Canadians in The Path seems less likely to promote reconciliation than to promote a distorted perception of history and of the causes of socioeconomic disparity, anger, shame, and enduring Indigenous alienation,” he wrote in the Dorchester Review.
Other signatories have said the course requirement reminds them of their childhood in authoritarian China.
“I understand the concerns around indoctrination and forced speech,” said Farrow.
“I don’t see this as indoctrination. This is continuing education in an area where Canadians have been woefully undereducated. It’s the law society playing part of its role in this larger social project.”
Webber said the complaint’s intent to disallow the society from requiring any continuing education suggests the motivation is elsewhere.
“We’re not talking about indoctrination. We’re talking about an unwillingness to learn.”
British Columbia is one province where the law society requires an Indigenous-themed course.
Other self-regulating professions also require their members to continually upgrade their qualifications.
The Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Alberta requires its members to take a certain number of classes every three years. It doesn’t mandate one class for all members, but gives them a range of choices they must pick from.
The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta requires ongoing education as well as two mandatory courses related to sexual abuse and misconduct.
Requiring such educational updates is part of the bargain such professions make with society, Farrow said.
“The fundamental obligation is to regulate lawyers in the public interest. It’s in the idea of competence and what is required of a modern lawyer where these things rest.”
Nor is it convincing to claim that some types of legal practice don’t intersect with Indigenous issues, Webber said.
“Indigenous people are present in every area of the economy,” he said. “They exercise real control over lands that are important for resource development.”
Then there’s the outsized involvement of Indigenous people in the criminal justice system, of which lawyers are an integral part.
“It’s not a secret,” Farrow said. “What the law society and lawyers are going to do about it needs to be part of the solution and I think that’s where some of this comes in.”
About 400 Alberta lawyers have signed a counter-petition in support of the society’s right to require The Path. The law society’s 24 benchers — a type of board of directors — have also publicly opposed the original petition.
Alberta has about 11,000 lawyers.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 5, 2023.
Bob Weber, The Canadian Press
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