It all began a decade ago when David Bosum, a Cree tallyman, asked an American graduate student who was in Oujé-Bougoumou on a course, a simple question: “Can mines make fish sick?”
That student was Christopher Covel, a geologist and scientist who specializes in the field of contaminated water clean-up.
Upon discovering that the waterways near Oujé had become contaminated with heavy metals and other contaminants from the 20+ mines that have been opened in the vicinity since the 1950s and that there was a potential from the contamination caused by these mines to have a severe impact on these ecosystems, the battle to get them cleaned-up began.
Covel wrote a report on the contamination in Lake Chibougamau, Lake Dore and Lake Obatagamou in 2001 but little happened as the government initially denied there was a problem which caused arguments between the Crees, Quebec and the mining industry for years.
One decade and numerous government and independent studies later, a steering committee comprised of various government departments, independent scientists, Crees and Covel has been formed and is now developing an action plan.
“There are no words that can express how positive it is to see everyone working together and agreeing to move forward. I never thought I would see this happen because it’s been 10 years of discontent and mayhem. It’s now over with,” said Covel.
While the steering committee to assess the problems in Oujé’s waterways was formed six years ago, committee co-chair Peter G.C. Campbell, a toxicology expert, said things have been on hold because the fates of several mining companies responsible for the contamination were up in the air and one has since gone bankrupt.
On March 1, 2010, Covel joined the steering committee informally as an interim member along with Norman Wapachee to represent the Crees. At this time however the committee had not met for an entire year. The delay happened because of the situation with the mining companies and because the committee member from the Ministry of Natural Resources has been on sick leave. According to Campbell and Covel, the steering committee is now moving from the studying phase towards creating a remediation plan.
The Oujé-Bougoumou Band Council signed two resolutions dated March 1 stipulating that the steering committee should make a new and final assessment of the areas where the contamination is most concentrated and then proceed to remediate and restore them.
According to Campbell, having Covel as an addition to the steering committee is ideal because he is coming in with new ideas.
“It’s a win-win situation for the steering committee that we now have a person who has the technical expertise to be able to critique any restoration plans and make suggestions to them and to make sure that the restoration plans are done with state-of-the-art, up-to-the-minute techniques. And because he’s someone who has had a good relationship with the community in the past, he has their confidence and trust,” said Campbell.
The steering committee will talk again on May 13 (just after press time), with a new representative from the Ministry of Natural Resources who replaces the member on sick leave so that team can start working on their directives and move forward.
According to Covel, who is also serving as a technical representative for Oujé, he is anxious to get started because everyone on the steering committee will be working together as a unified front since there has been a paradigm shift amongst those working on the problem.
For the first time in a decade, Covel said he is happy about a situation he has fought so hard to see resolved for the Crees and that the leadership of both the Cree and the Quebec government deserve credit for coming together to work. In particular, he mentioned the efforts of Oujé-Bougoumou Chief Louise Wapachee, who has lobbied so hard to see this clean-up finally happen.
While the completion of the remediation and restoration of Oujé’s waters may still be years off at this point in time, all of the necessary players are now in place to finally see it come to fruition.