A year has passed since the Nation last tackled the Ouje-Bougoumou heavy metal toxins issue. The magazine decided to let that issue rest for a year out of respect for the family of the late Joseph Shecapio-Blacksmith. Joseph was the driving force behind the fight to clean up the toxic waste problem near O.J. and he will be missed.
The problem, however, has not been dealt with and many people, it appears, hope that it will just disappear. Others, both Cree and non-Cree, are interested in insuring the battle to save the watershed around Ouje-Bougoumou is fully brought into the public’s eye. One of those is Christopher Covel. Covel was the geologist who first looked at the problem after being requested to do so by O-J David Bosum. Bosum asked Covel if mines can make fish sick.
The answer, unfortunately, is yes. The danger of it working its way up the food chain is real. The Quebec government admitted it knew about the problem two years before Covel talked about it. They attempted to call Covel’s work “bad science” and the Grand Council, who he had worked for initially, now says he has a tendency to grandstand and that they take what he says with a grain of salt.
Even if Covel is grandstanding, if what he says is true then we should all worry about the future of Ouje-Bougoumou and its people.
The Nation: When did you first go to Eeyou Istchee and why?
Christopher Covel: I first went there in March 2000 as a graduate student from Antioch New England Graduate School in Keene,
NH. The title of the class was titled Cree Culture in a Sustainable Community:
I had wanted to go to somewhere in the northern climates for many years, I had been to Bolivia, Mexico, and many places in the world which were tropical, desert or European communities. I always wanted to go on an adventure in my own neighbourhood. I felt as if I was always missing something in my soul. I had been in the United States Air Force and traveled extensively as a member of a flight crew.
However, I always wanted to get in my car and actually drive straight north until the road ended. When the opportunity arose to do it and for college credits it seemed too good to be true and I jumped at the chance. I had learned from my travels throughout the world there was always something a person could learn from another culture, both good and bad. I wanted to learn what my neighbours were doing to the north. It always seemed so close but yet so remote.
So it wasn’t for the O-J toxins to begin with?
Absolutely not. That was the last thing that I ever expected. I would not even know about it if it weren’t for a tallyman asking me “can mines make fish sick? This was after at least a week in the bush and the tallyman asked me what I did “down south for work.”
What was your first reaction when you saw the sites?
It was very internal pain and shock. I didn’t want to scare my friend. If anything I must say for the rest of my life I will never forget that millisecond. My brain said, “Oh my god. This is one of the worst contaminated sites I have ever seen in my life.”
More than 15 years in the business and I thought I had seen it all. I was shown I was wrong. I was very worried, angry, and shocked. You see, as a citizen of the United States, we always had these images taught to us that Canada was pristine and the government protected its land and people like a mother protects her young. When I saw the tailings and kill zones it reminded me of a Third World country like Bolivia. I could literally not believe it. I felt disgust, betrayal, anger, shock; I knew I had been lied to. I knew if I did not act on what I saw I could not consider myself a human being. Something had to be done and I guess that was why the Creator sent me there, to act on this. I couldn’t not talk because then I would just be a part of a cover up.
You briefly worked for the Grand Council before being replaced. What did you do?
I documented the heavy-metal contamination that existed in three locations. It was a pilot project to get the attention of the government. It was to prove the ecosystem was, and still is, being contaminated with arsenic, chromium, cyanide, selenium, copper, etc. etc. These are all wastes produced by mining gold and copper.
Who replaced you and what did you think of their work?
No one replaced me. There were two government studies which came out of my work. One was a Health Risk Assessment that was supposed to focus on the contaminants from the mine but instead turned out to be an “Exposure and Preliminary Health Assessments of the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree Population to Mine Tailings Residues”. This document stated that it was a draft dated August 28, 2003. It also stated in the title it was a “Preliminary” document. There has never been a final report as far I know. The problem I have with the preliminary draft document is that nowhere in the study did the document focus on a health risk between the people living near the mines consuming the fish and water. It focused on the entire population of the Ouje-Bougoumou Cree in the village. This basically is not a representative sample of the Crees which have been most affected by the contamination.
The Quebec government admitted they knew about the problem two years before my report ever was produced and made public. In this case it looks like manifest destiny, only instead of the government of the United States and the railroad barons taking over Native lands going west towards the Pacific Ocean, it is the government of Quebec and the mining companies taking over the Native lands northward. It’s the same thing 150 years later – just a different government.
The other report on the environmental impact assessment was supposed to be released in October 2003. We are still waiting and my sources tell
me it is finished. It is said to show widespread contamination and won’t be released because of the outrage it is expected to create. To me this is simply an outrage.
You’ve been accused of grand-standing and doing bad science. How do you respond to these allegations?
I am right; no one can prove me wrong. The only option the government-paid scientists have is to create a smoke screen and call me names. Well, they can throw rocks and try to discredit me. Their hope is that the people get confused and will not know who or what to believe. If the government-paid scientists want to say I am “grandstanding” I couldn’t care less. Let them prove me wrong. Let them bring in a team of international independent scientists to analyze what I say is going on in the mine areas.
A challenge to all who say I am “grandstanding”: prove me wrong. I challenge them to prove me wrong. I could care less how many letters or degrees a person has after their name or how many publications they have. The fact is they can’t say I am wrong because they know I am right.
Let’s work together to clean up the toxic mess. Name calling is for kids on the playground and I won’t have any part of it. The data is the data. The facts are the facts. Deal with it.
I am tired of the political dance. People are dying, ecosystems are being destroyed, and the Cree people have no idea how systemic the problem is. It is time for everyone to ask the right questions to get the right answers. They say I am “grandstanding” because they are afraid of me and the truth. It is about money, not grandstanding or egos.
I understand that a New Hampshire lab worker told you that the sample contained the highest amount of arsenic he had ever seen in 20 years. What does this mean and what kinds of things did they find?
It means people who get near the tailings are at a risk of dying from arsenic poisoning. The levels we have seen are not natural. The levels are over 10,000 times higher than normal.
So it wasn’t a mercury thing. I thought that was one of the complaints against you? Mercury had nothing to do with my study. It happened to be one of the metals that are analyzed under the metals test I had run on my samples. Mercury has its complicated problems and there are plenty of scientists studying the effects of mercury. No, my work had nothing to do about mercury. This is just another example of muddying the waters to prevent the focus on the real problem – uncontrolled mine waste continuing to this second to enter the environment.
How bad would you say this problem was?
One of the worst I have ever seen. I have been doing this work since 1985 and this clearly ranks in the worst three. What makes it worse is no one will do anything about it. The other two were a Bolivia gold mine in the Andes Mountains – 14,500 feet above sea level. When the Bolivian government realized the natives and the animals were dying they immediately forced the company to fix the problem. That is why I was there. The other was in the United States in Idaho on the Coeur d’Alene lands. The United States government began cleaning up that area back in the 1980s after the Coeur d’Alene Tribe won a court case against the government of the United States. Both sites are still undergoing cleanup.
You lost a friend to the toxins. What did that feel like?
It is such a loss I get sick to my stomach every time I think about it.
To be quite honest I do not want to talk about it, it is too painful. It hurts too much.
What would you say the Crees have to do to end this problem?
Elect people immediately who care about the health and welfare of the Cree people and are not afraid to stand up to the government of Quebec. Elect people who care about their fellow human beings and not about money. People who will not sell the soul of the Earth for short term gain of power and money. Then force the world to help fix the problem. Believe me if it can be done in Bolivia, South America, then it can be done in the Cree Nation. Make every voice be heard. Hold every person and every company accountable. Make it not cost effective to destroy the Earth. Money is the only thing these people understand. Do that and the problem can be fixed.
What should we make all future mines do?
Hold them accountable to the highest environmental standards in the World. Insure an independent group of scientists and engineers watch their every move and insure as Crees you have the authority to order a cease-and-desist order if the mines fail to comply with environmental standards. There are safe ways to mine so force the mining companies to use them. Have the mining companies put money in escrow to clean up anything they walk away from. Then and only then will they care about the people and the Earth as much as the profits. If anyone wants to start up the vanadium mine, my advice would be to don’t let it open until the companies do what I just said.
If you were a Cree what would you be saying?
It has been over a year now for many things. It has been over a year since Joseph Shecapio-Blacksmith died, and over a year that they have not released his cause of death as he requested be done. It has been over a year since the government of Quebec was supposed to release their Environmental Impact Study on the admitted mining contamination in the Oujé-Bougoumou area. It has been over a year since the government of Quebec released a Health Risk Assessment which did not mention the mines when allegedly that is what the report was supposed to address: mining contamination health issues. It has been over one year since the USA went to war in the Middle East, causing the price of gold and copper to increase by sabre rattling and using the increased gold and copper production to fuel the war machine and the war mongers’ pockets. It has been over one year since anyone has mentioned the mining contamination or Joseph.
Over one year. Over one year and still the heavy metals from the toxic mine tailings continue to leach into the water, the “blood” of the Cree peoples. Over one year and the leaders have been silent on this issue. One year too long.
Over one year since Joseph and I met with Senator John Sununu in Manchester, New Hampshire, where the Senator said to Joseph, “How can I help you?” Over one year since Joseph walked out of that meeting, turned to me in amazement and said, “I have been asking for help from our government for so many years and no one has ever said that to me.” Over one year since the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sent back a three page letter to Joseph with nine contact people who could help him. The leaders only had to ask.
Over one year since Joseph and I went to the Annual First Nations Conference in Boise, Idaho, to see and talk to the Coeur d’Alene Eenou to see how they got the US government to clean up their problem of waste from the gold and copper toxic waste tailings. Over one year since Joseph and I reviewed the laboratory analysis from Aquarian Analytical, Inc. documenting levels of heavy metals thousands of times over the legal limit. Over one year since CBC released three documentaries on Maamuitaau showing the contamination going into waters of the Chibougamau, Obatagamau and Doré lakes. It has been over one year since I first saw it with my own probing geologic eyes.
No. I am wrong. It actually all began almost five years ago. It has however, been over one year since the government acknowledged it knew about the problem. How many more years? How many more lakes? How many more fish? How many more ecosystems? How many more lives?
How many more years until the government of Quebec proves the Agreement in Principal (AIP) works: new ways to show the world how aboriginal peoples and governments work together. If this is the way the Cree leaders and the Quebec government are going to work together it may only be a generation before the Cree Eenou/Eeyou no longer exists. The Cree slide into history as have most other great indigenous cultures of this earth.
We have been without our friend Joseph Shecapio-Blacksmith for over a year. He is still waiting. So am I. I am still alive. I am not going away. It has been over a year. Actually it has been over 50 years. Where is the leadership? Is this what the AIP brought? Continuous pain and suffering for the Cree? My wait is over. The government has had their chance to prove me wrong and they didn’t. I made a promise. I gave my word to Joseph. The time for talking is over. The time to clean up the toxic wasteland is now. I will never give up.