By Jeremy East and Joel Barde
Photos by Jeremy East
After walking hundreds of kilometres through punishing late-autumn weather, a group of Cree youth arrived in Montreal December 15 to deliver the message they had carried since leaving Mistissini three weeks before: No uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee.
The mood on the final leg of the march was joyous. Roughly a hundred people accompanied the group of 21 Cree walkers on the walk along Papineau Street to Place des Arts in downtown Montreal.
Seven of the walkers, including Youth Grand Chief Joshua Iserhoff, made the trek in its entirety – all 850 kilometres from Mistissini to Montreal – braving tumultuous weather that ranged from rain to a frigid -28 Celsius.
“You know that Guns and Roses song, ‘November Rain’? I kept singing that along the way!” joked Iserhoff.
Along with Mistissini Youth Chief Amy Linton and Youth Ambassador Nicholas Wapachee, Iserhoff delivered the message that they would later repeat at the final hearing on uranium development by the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE).
“We do not want uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee,” he said. “It’s a simple message. We do not want our land and water contaminated.”
The walkers were joined by Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come as they approached Place des Arts and the Hyatt Regency hotel where the BAPE hearing was to be held that evening. Iserhoff, Linton, Coon Come and Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio addressed the media surrounded by vocal supporters.
“This is something that we take to heart,” said Linton. “The radioactivity that would affect Mistissini for thousands of years would be devastating to our people and all the people of Quebec.”
Ten days earlier, Iserhoff and Linton met Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Geoffrey Kelly, a spokesperson for the Minister of Natural Resources, and key members of opposition parties. The National Assembly even passed an all-party motion recognizing the Cree Youth March on December 5.
The Cree Nation has been staunchly opposed to uranium development since the former Liberal government of Jean Charest promoted the industry as part of the Plan Nord, saying as many as 20 uranium mines could be developed in the North. At the Matoush site north of Mistissini, Strateco Resources invested about $120 million preparing a future mine.
That project was shelved last year after the then-PQ government declared a moratorium on uranium mining and launched the public hearings.
After months of consultations with communities that would be affected by the uranium industry, representatives from the Cree Nation Government, Cree Health Board, and the Kativik Corporation participated in the final BAPE hearing.
During his testimony, Coon Come said the youth march signalled that Cree opposition to uranium is genuine and that young Crees are legitimately concerned.
Coon Come said he has grown frustrated by an argument he’d heard many times throughout the BAPE hearings, that the land in which the uranium mining is to take place is uninhabited.
Nothing, he said, could be further from the truth.
“We occupy and use the entire area of Eeyou Istchee,” Coon Come insisted. “We engage in our traditional activities on an extensive network of hunting and trapping grounds. The animals that sustain us move throughout this whole territory. And we move with them. “
He then outlined a number of aspects of uranium mining he finds particularly troubling.
First and foremost, radiation poisoning poses a health risk to people and animals.
Coon Come noted a group of Sept-Îles doctors who have vowed to leave the region if uranium mining there goes forward.
He also expressed scepticism at industry reassurances that they could deal with a potential spill or contamination, especially given that tailings would remain toxic for thousands of years.
“There is no doubt that the brunt of this clean-up would fall on the government and small communities,” he argued.
“The forests and waters of Eeyou Istchee should not be jeopardized. They are inextricably linked to the identity of the Cree people and must be protected. We do not like what we have learned. And we do not consent.”