While the Cree and other nearby communities in Quebec hold their breath waiting for the ruling from the November 23 COFEX/COMEX hearing over whether Strateco Resources will be allowed to pursue a uranium exploration ramp in the Otish Mountains, tension has been building on both sides of the debate.

In the wake of the last hearing, the second of two in six months over whether Strateco will be granted permission by federal and provincial government panels to proceed with the project on Cree traditional lands, Strateco and other industry bodies have been rallying support for the project.

This comes despite the fact that in November, the community of Mistissini made it clear that it was in opposition to the project based on the information that Strateco had provided in a lengthy Environmental Impact Study (EIS).

At the time, community members felt that there were too many unanswered questions within the EIS and they also had major concerns over human health and potential impacts to environment. As a result Chief Richard Shecapio told both panels that Mistissini was by no means in favour.

According to Ramsey Hart, a scientist and activist with the organization MiningWatch Canada, the ruling was tentatively scheduled to be released by the end of January but it has not yet arrived. Hart, who made a presentation at the Mistissini hearings against the uranium exploration project and then attended the hearings in Chibougamau two days later, has had persistent concerns over what kind of information each side has been getting.

When the Nation spoke to Hart right after the November 25 hearings in Chibougamau he said he was concerned in particular about the message residents in town were getting as the presentations were different from what the Cree in Mistissini got.

While Mistissini residents heard various presentations based on what was lacking in the EIS and the dangers of uranium mining, according to Hart, what was presented in Chibougamau was very selective and very pro-mining.

Naturally it was no surprise to Hart that two months later that, on a government-and-industry-sponsored trip for Quebecers to visit a similar mining project in Saskatchewan on Indigenous land, the presentations supported earlier discussions.

Hart was invited to be part of a delegation organized by the Quebec Ministry of Natural Resources and Wildlife that visited Saskatchewan’s Little Rabbit Mine, Saskatoon and Regina over three days from January 11-13. Other delegates on the trip included Minister Serge Simard, ministry staff, regional and Quebec health representatives, and elected officials and staff from the North Shore and James Bay regions, including Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr.

Hart attended the event on the behalf of the Coalition Québec Meilleure Mine (Better Mining Coalition) and, according to him, was the only participant representing an activist group.

“It was interesting but often quite frustrating as it was pretty clear that we were being shown the best side of the industry. It was a challenge to have issues addressed or to get into the substance of issues as most of the presentations were really general and didn’t go into any depth,” said Hart.

Hart said he posed many questions concerning human health and drinking water quality within the vicinity of the Little Rabbit uranium mine, but his questions remained unanswered and there was no concrete data available on monitoring.

Hart said that because there was no data made available by industry or the government on monitoring, it was impossible to drive home the idea to the other delegates that this project had caused environmental damage. At the same time, he said with just a few moments online he could have easily found data from a semi-independent community monitoring group called the Athabasca Working Group that proves elevated levels of uranium have been found in a bay just downstream from the Rabbit Lake mine.

“Industry and the Saskatchewan government kept saying that there really were no environmental issues,” said Hart.

While Hart acknowledged that these presentations may have had some merit, knowing the science behind the industry, he described the presentations as being comprised of “selective information.” In the coming months, Hart said he will be conducting his own research to fill in the many “blanks” left by the Saskatchewan presentations.

The Mistissini Cree were also invited to take part in the delegation to Saskatchewan, but they declined.

“We will go to meet with and learn from Denesuline Nation representatives at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way. Furthermore the Cree Nation of Mistissini has great interest in speaking with the land users directly impacted by this type of mining. We want to see the facts about uranium mining with our own eyes and to hear from local people who have lived with this kind of development for years, who understand these pros and cons all too well. This should form the basis for a fact-finding mission,” said Shecapio.

The Nation was contacted by a number of readers about a press release put out by Strateco for fundraising events in London, England and Paris, France to go towards the Matoush project in the Otish Mountains as they felt Mistissini’s views were being misrepresented.

The invitation for the London events on January 25-26 at the Park Lane Hotel in particular stated, “Strateco announced that it has received strong support from all the parties involved in the public hearings held in Quebec in this matter.”

This statement is being made abroad despite the fact that Strateco has already contradicted this in its own releases made domestically on November 26 that stated, “Richard Shecapio indicated that the community does not support the Matoush project.”

According to Shecapio, his position regarding the project has not changed since November.

In response to Strateco’s announcements, the Cree Nation of Mistissini also sent along the following statement from Shecapio to reaffirm its position and explain what has gone on since late November.

“Strateco is a mining developer. Securing investment is part of what they do. The Cree Nation of Mistissini’s opposition to the Matoush proposal is well known and has been clearly communicated.

“What I can say is, the Council of the Cree Nation of Mistissini passed a motion on December 13 supporting my public statement of community opposition to the Strateco proposal at the November 23 COFEX/COMEX public hearing,” said Shecapio.

Mistissini held a working group meeting January 12 to bring together a representative cross-section of community leaders and engage them in a structured discussion in regards to advanced uranium exploration and uranium mining and the long-term community vision for sustainable development on its traditional territory.

“We recently conducted a door-to-door survey in our community and collected over 650 responses. The overwhelming message is that in the absence of enough information, Mistissini wants advanced uranium exploration activities to stop on our traplines.

“As we wait for the final report from the COFEX/COMEX panels I am confident that the words I spoke at the November 23 public hearing provides ample evidence that social acceptability just isn’t there at this time, not only for the Matoush proposal, but for all advanced uranium exploration and development on our traditional territory,” said Shecapio.

While it is unclear at the present time as to whether or not the community will be pursuing legal action regarding the statements made abroad by Strateco, Hart said the company has crossed the line.

“It should not be accepted or tolerated. This is an area where they are giving misinformation. The statements in the press release said they have strong support from local interests – that simply isn’t true. To say that they had strong support following the hearings in Chibougamau and Mistissini goes too far. To say they have strong support from all local interests, it is not true,” said Hart.

In the meantime, as there are few restrictions on basic drilling for the purposes of uranium detection anywhere within Quebec, Strateco has announced that it resumed drilling within the Otish Mountains as of January 14. As part of Phase I of its 2011 activities, the company intends on 30,000 meters of drilling.

According to its January 13 press release, “This phase of drilling is centered on the Matoush property (100%-owned), Pacific Bay-Matoush property (option on 60%) and Mistassini property (option on 60%), and is part of a massive 120,000-metre program that began in October 2009. Over 43,600 metres have been drilled to date.”

These drilling activities can be carried out without permission from the Cree provided that the provincial government signs off on them. It is taking a step further by building the exploration ramp deep into the mountains that requires Cree support and the verdict on whether or not Strateco’s wish will be granted is expected in the near future.