When, early last December, Dr. Isabelle Gingras and 19 other specialists and general practitioners who work at the Sept-Îles Hospital Centre threatened to quit en masse over a proposed uranium mine near the North Shore city, the province’s political, media and medical establishment were indignant.
They’re holding the population of Sept-Îles as hostages to make a political point, shouted an editorialist. There’s really no danger at this stage of exploration, wondered a cabinet minister, so why the drama? There will be professional repercussions, darkly threatened the head of the provincial College of Physicians.
But for Dr. Gingras, who lives in the city with her two young children, the proposed mine left her no choice.
“As a mother, I could not in good conscience stay there. The risks are too great for my children,” she told me after a press conference January 18 by a coalition of environmental groups opposed to uranium mining in Quebec. “And as a physician, my duty is to denounce the threat to the population.”
She ticked off the health risks that have long been shown to accompany the industry: lung cancer, infertility, leukaemia, kidney failure, and birth defects, among others.
It’s not just miners and their families at risk, even though they suffer the brunt of the blow. The whole community near mines, from windblown dust off mine tailings, from water contamination, to the simple residues attached to miners’ vehicles and bodies as they come home from work, is at risk.
And in Sept-Îles, the mine proposed by the Terra Ventures mining company is beside Lake Kachiwiss, which provides the city’s drinking water.
For these reasons, a recent Leger Marketing poll of 1,002 Sept-Îles residents showed that fully 91 per cent of the city’s population oppose the mine, and 86 per cent support a moratorium on uranium mining in the whole province.
Another proposed uranium mine is close to an important body of water. The Strateco project in the Otish Mountains is just north of Lake Mistissini. But even though Natural Resources Minister Nathalie Normandeau said last week this project would only go ahead with the consent of the Crees, both the province and the Crees are pretty much powerless to stop it, even if they wanted to (which, in both cases, is still unclear).
Under proposed new legislation to govern Quebec’s mining industry – which, as the right-wing Fraser Institute gleefully notes year after year, is the most unregulated mining jurisdiction in the world – a region could theoretically forbid uranium mining on its territory. But it wouldn’t be able to stop an existing mine or the construction of a mine from an existing mining claim.
That’s essentially why the coalition – known as Pour que le Québec ait meilleure mine! – held their press conference last week. They are demanding that Quebec beef up its mining regulations to give some power to local populations threatened by the collateral damage from the industry.
Noting that taxpayers are on the hook for more than $300 million in clean-up costs for abandoned mine sites, coalition spokesperson Ugo Lapointe says that local people are almost always disadvantaged by the way the mining industry works in Quebec. “It’s not ‘cut and run’ in this industry, it’s ‘dig and run’,” he ironised.
Sure, there are a few, largely temporary, jobs for locals, Lapointe said. But the vast majority of the wealth leaves the region, and the province, in short order, leaving nothing but contamination and environmental destruction behind.
With uranium mining, the risks are multiplied. Radioactive contamination takes thousands of years to dissipate. And given the Crees’ reliance on fish for a large part of their diet, waterborne contamination from uranium mining will be especially devastating.
There’s no doubt that the current high prices for uranium – driven by the reliance on nuclear power as an alternative to energy from fossil fuels – is giving the industry extra power.
And in Quebec, extra power is the last thing the mining industry needs. Miners pretty much have carte blanche over about 85 per cent of the province, even on private lands, under Quebec’s current mining legislation, the principles of which date to the 19th century gold rush in California, notes Ugo Lapointe.
These are known as “Free Mining” principles (which is apt since miners generally pay nothing in royalties to the people who actually own the resources in Quebec). In essence, Free Mining is based on three rights: the right to prospect, which means they can go anywhere in search of valuable minerals without the need to ask anyone’s permission; the right to stake a claim; and, finally, the right to exploit their claim.
The last right may be a bit of a grey zone, which is one reason Quebec is finally updating its laws governing the industry. But the coalition says the province isn’t going nearly far enough to address the democratic rights of affected populations, or to ensure Quebecers receive proper compensation for the resource, or to ensure environmental standards are maintained.
The “stakes” are multiplied when uranium is the resource being mined. Quebec – and the Grand Council of the Crees – need to fulfill their responsibilities to the people who employ them, ie, their electors.