With a new, pro-business Liberal government, the beginning of a provincial consultation process on uranium extraction and new legal manoeuvres by Strateco, the battle over uranium mining in Quebec is reaching a tipping point.
Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come was one of the first to appear before a year-long Bureau d’audiences Publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) consultation on the issue that began in Montreal May 20.
Coon Come explained that the BAPE does not normally have jurisdiction in Eeyou Istchee, but that the Cree Nation recognized the need for a broad and independent inquiry into the uranium sector in Quebec. “Proponent-led project reviews do not tend to provide for an assessment of the true costs and risks of uranium mining,” he said.
The true costs, Coon Come said, are in the potential effects on lands and waters, and on plants and animals.
“Our connection with this land and its inhabitants is not something abstract and intangible,” he told the Montreal hearing. “It is at the core of our way of life. Much has changed in our communities over the last three generations, but our way of life remains fundamentally connected to the land, [and] relies on the land for all that we have. In turn, we must respect the land for all that it has to offer.”
A week before, a press conference by a number of environmental and community organizations called on the recently elected Premier Philippe Couillard to uphold the moratorium on uranium extraction imposed by the former PQ government last year. The coalition, which included Greenpeace, Mining Watch and groups representing communities, physicians and academics, also emphasized the need to respect Aboriginal positions over mining in their territories.
John Longchap, Director General of the Cree Nation of Mistissini, and Assembly of First Nations Regional Chief Ghislain Picard chaired the meeting.
Longchap denounced the fact that no BAPE hearings are scheduled to take place in Eeyou Istchee, and that the nearest is scheduled to be held in Chibougamau. The Grand Council of the Crees has formally invited the BAPE to visit Cree communities.
“One thing we have to understand is the BAPE process in large part started from our stand on the most advanced uranium project in Quebec, which is in our backyard,” Longchap said. “They have a duty to consult us. It’s only natural for a good government to hear the concerns of the people who are most directly affected, especially if their way of life and the territory that they’ve subsisted upon for many years is going to be affected.”
Picard agreed, saying the position of the Grand Council of the Crees has guided the AFN’s Quebec Chiefs in their position on uranium.
“They have adopted a very strongly worded resolution just over a year ago, saying that this is ‘a global rejection of any kind of uranium exploration on our lands.’ That’s where our Chiefs in Quebec stand on this issue, and they will continue defending that position,” Picard explained.
To Picard, even calls for a permanent moratorium on uranium fell too short.
“A moratorium could mean that we look at the issue again in 10 or 20 years,” he said. “We’re not too confident about that. So that’s why we want to make it clear that any type of exploration of uranium on our lands is definitely out of the question.”
Should the battle continue, however, Picard says he is ready to see uranium become a central piece of the argument about Aboriginal territorial sovereignty. “The whole issue of land, and the rights and title to the land, is something that nobody else can claim but our peoples.”
As the Grand Chief told the BAPE hearing, the people most at risk need to be heard. Supporters of the Strateco Resources’ Matoush project north of Mistissini have consistently played down the possibility of negative effects, said Coon Come.
Coon Come pointed to the lifespan of radioactive waste, which must be contained for thousands of years. He said a report prepared for the Environment Ministry glossed over the complexity of that issue, which would require creative organizational, institutional and funding structures to communicate and contain the risk down hundreds of generations.
“The mining and milling of these deposits will happen on our territory,” he said. “The yellowcake will be transported down our roads, through our territory. The tailings will be left behind on our land. Our surface water and groundwater will bear the risk of contamination. The animals and plant life on which we rely for sustenance and nourishment drink this water. We, the Crees of Eeyou Istchee, drink this water. We are the ones who will bear the brunt of any health risks associated with contamination.”
The James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement, he reminded the BAPE, is a constitutional treaty, which takes precedence over legislation, and makes Eeyou Istchee “subject to a unique environmental and social protection regime.”
For that reason, said Coon Come, the social acceptability of the project must be especially strongly considered by the BAPE.
“The concerns and opinions of the population directly affected by uranium mining must be at the core of any decision regarding the uranium sector,” he said. “Social acceptability cannot be treated as an afterthought. The views of the people who live near the uranium deposits, the people who must bear the real risks, must be at the forefront of your work over the next year. This is essential, even when this work occurs in Montreal or Quebec City.”