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An open pit at a lithium mine outside La Corne, Que., in August, 2022.BRENDAN GEORGE KO/The New York Times News Service

Quebeckers living outside big cities are taking the unusual step of buying mining claims on their own properties to shield them from commercial exploration, amid a new wave of interest in the province’s mineral potential.

Landowners in the towns of Saint-Élie-de-Caxton, Saint-Mathieu-du-Parc, Saint Boniface and Shawinigan in Quebec’s Mauricie region have purchased 165 claims since April this year. Non-profit organizations have bought another 61, for a total of 226, according to Gilbert Guérin, president of a local group fighting mining development. And this is only one of many such hot spots.

“A mining project here would be like an elephant in a china shop – highly destructive,” Mr. Guérin said. “It’s a region of nature and culture. The government doesn’t seem to see this. It’s as if they’re telling companies, ‘The territory is open for you, help yourselves.’”

MiningWatch Canada, another group that advocates for limits on mining, says there has been an unprecedented boom in claims in Southern Quebec by companies and investors over the past two years.

The situation highlights an emerging tug of war between Quebec’s desire to stoke new, private-sector mining development – particularly for the raw materials necessary for making electric-car batteries – and citizens fearful of the effects of industrial expansion. Calls are growing for Quebec to overhaul its mining laws to clarify the rules and reflect current realities, and dozens of municipalities are calling for a provincewide moratorium on new claims until such an overhaul occurs.

Under Quebec regulations, anyone can buy a mining claim on an electronic registry online for as little as $75, regardless of whether they own the property they are claiming, and with no requirement that they notify whoever does own it. A claim gives the holder an exclusive right to explore for minerals on the land it covers, and is good for an initial three-year period, with possible renewals.

Although a claim-holder can’t proceed with mineral exploration work without the consent of the landowner, landowners don’t always know they can say no. And even without permission, a claim-holder can still do things that might be upsetting to an owner, such as aerial surveying work with helicopters.

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Mining Watch Canada spokesperson Rodrigue Turgeon said the organization knows of landowners who believe the values of their properties have declined because of land-use complications related to mining claims.

Buying a claim on one’s own land, advocates of the practice say, is a way to head off these nuisances and assert control over what they characterize as a free-for-all.

Musician and storyteller Fred Pellerin, known for his imaginative songs that often feature his hometown, Saint-Élie, is among those who have bought claims on their own land. He told Radio-Canada earlier this year that the balance is tilted in favour of mining companies, because they are given certain rights over land without needing to consult with land owners, municipalities or First Nations.

“We’ve now been left to make claims ourselves. Isn’t there something completely absurd in that?” he said.

Others have a different view. Eric Lemieux, a Quebec geologist and independent mining analyst, said initial survey work is often done by air, with no immediate impact on landowners. It would be “overkill” to oblige claim holders to notify property owners, he said.

He added that it would be impossible to make large tracts of land off limits to mining claims “and at the same time require and demand the metals and commodities of modern life.”

According to the latest data from the Quebec government’s mining title management system, there are now some 330,000 active mining claims across the province. That’s nearly twice the amount in place in October, 2020. Areas that previously attracted less interest, such as southwestern Quebec, have seen particularly sharp growth.

Demand for minerals is increasing in North America as the United States and its allies try to lessen their dependence on China for raw materials necessary to produce everything from electronics to military weapons. Canada is seen as one potential source and Canadian companies, such as Vancouver-based Graphite One Inc. GPH-X, have begun receiving financial backing under the U.S. Defense Production Act to advance their exploration and production work.

High prices for gold have also likely contributed to claim interest in Quebec. The precious metal has traded above US$1,500 per ounce since spring 2020, reflecting faith in its value as the global economy has experienced a series of shocks, including the pandemic and the war in Ukraine.

“Every region of Quebec is targeted by this mining boom,” Mr. Turgeon said. “Municipalities that for centuries lived on other values and other economic development bases are seeing this industry coming with those precedent rights.”

Mr. Turgeon called the move by average citizens to buy claims “a very imperfect solution” to the perceived problem. A better fix, he said, would be to revamp the mining regime itself, which is still based on what he called an “archaic” principle that corporations should have the upper hand in land management decisions.

Quebec does have a relatively new provision that allows municipalities to designate themselves territories that are incompatible with mining activity. But they have to apply to the government to make that designation official, and the government has the last word on approval.

The Algonquins of Barriere Lake, Que., have launched a legal challenge against the province and its free-entry mining system, which they say does not respect their constitutionally protected right to be consulted before a claim is issued.

They launched the action after junior mining company Copper One sued the Quebec government in 2017 to obtain a permit to cut down trees in order to access Algonquin ancestral land for exploration. The company and the government reached an out-of-court settlement that led to mining claims being transferred to the province. But the legal question of whether there is a right to consultation has still not been answered.

“We really need the courts to step in and explain where that line needs to be drawn,” said Marc Bishai, a lawyer who represented part of the group.

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