The people of Eeyou Istchee are blessed to be living among some of the most spectacular landscapes on Earth. Sometimes that blessing can be a curse, however. The land of Northern Quebec is also rich with natural resources. And wherever there is money to be made, problems inevitably arise.

The Crees’ stewardship of the land is law. The Plan Nord, the Quebec government’s controversial development plan for the North, has its detractors, but this extension of the Paix des Braves was concluded on an egalitarian basis. In a statement on the Plan’s official website, provincial Native affairs minister Geoffrey Kelly states that the Plan “will be implemented in a spirit of mutual respect and will incorporate the Aboriginal perspective as it evolves during the implementation process.” The presence of uranium, however, and the Cree opposition to its exploitation, threatens to throw a wrench in the works.

Less than a month ago, Montreal newspaper La Presse revealed that the federal civil servant who gave the green light to uranium mining in the Otish Mountains was a former mining consultant and negotiator. Benoit Taillon, who led the federal government committee that approved the Strateco uranium application, worked in the past for such mining giants as Rio Tinto and Tata Steel, among others.

Though the Harper government denied it was in a conflict of interest, the fact remains that Mr. Taillon has intimate links to the mining industry from his 10 years’ experience working in it; he is now a federal bureaucrat in the very ministry charged with minding Canada’s resources.

The revelation added fuel to the fire of an already unpleasant situation. Recent consultative meetings between the federal committee and the people of the territory proved fruitless. The people are united in their opposition to the presence of a uranium mine on their land; the federal committee noted this opposition, and promptly approved the project.

The people of Eeyou Istchee may be proved right in their opposition to the mine in the worst possible ways. Uranium is a metal that is both toxic and radioactive. Exposure causes a number of conditions – everything from heart disease to hair loss to severe gastrointestinal problems. Mining uranium produces radioactive tailings, which contaminates the water table and poisons the food chain. In a word, it’s deadly. And we need not look further than to our Sahtu Dene cousins in the North West Territories to see proof of that.

When uranium was discovered on the shores of Great Bear Lake early last century, ore extracted from there ended up playing a large part in the United States’ atomic bomb program – the Manhattan Project. A group of Dene men were hired to mine the ore by the government as part of the war effort. The bombs thus developed wreaked destruction on Japan, helping bringing the Second World War to an end. But the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki weren’t the only casualties suffered by the radioactive minerals of the NWT. According to an investigation by the Calgary Herald, almost half of the original 30 or so group of men who mined uranium at Port Radium later developed various forms of cancer. And the suffering didn’t end there.

Deline is the town nearest the uranium operation. According to a CBC news report, the townspeople lobbying the federal government for more than 25 years before it agreed to clean up the area.

One of the stated goals of the Plan Nord is to “implement a process designed to assess the impact on the health of northern populations of development projects.” If this is the case, when is the Quebec government going to step up to the plate?

Strateco’s development of a uranium mine on Eeyou lands would indeed generate cash and jobs. But is it worth the risk? Are there more sustainable alternatives? Extracting resources is nothing new on our territory. In fact, a large part of our future depends on a sensible approach to resource extraction. The key word here is sensible.

As oil and coal reserves continue to dwindle the world over, more and more countries are mulling a switch to uranium-fuelled nuclear reactors as a power source. This is bound to drive the price of uranium ever higher. The people of Eeyou will therefore be forced to face tough questions as time wears on. How do we deal with companies and governments that are unresponsive to the will of the people? How do we negotiate guarantees for the health and safety of our grandchildren with our business partners? Is there such a thing as “too much” when dealing with resources? There are no easy answers.