I challenge the Nation to publish this letter in its entirety.
Following the Nation’s recent editorializing about the heavy metal contamination in the Oujé-Bougoumou traditional territory where the author suggests that there is a cover up of information and that there is a lack of seriousness by the Cree leadership in addressing this matter, I think it is time to speak out.
When the issue was first raised by the late Joseph Shecapio-Blacksmith who believed that there were serious questions about the potential contamination of some of the lakes and rivers in the Oujé-Bougoumou territory, it was the local Council who responded and urged the Grand Council of the Crees to engage Christopher Covel to undertake a preliminary assessment of the situation. The Grand Council in turn responded swiftly and positively.
It was our initial intention to obtain a preliminary indication of the seriousness of the situation knowing that if there was serious follow-up work which was required we would need to involve professionals with expertise in the area of environmental ecotoxicology and epidemiology. We were aware at the outset of the professional limitations of Mr. Covel whose professional training is as a geologist. We were also initially skeptical of Mr. Covel’s reliance on the medical advice he relied upon from Roger Masters, a retired professor of political science.
When Mr. Covel’s report was completed we realized that there were two components—a preliminary assessment of the extent potential environmental contaminants in three selected sites which found elevated levels of heavy metals, and an assessment of the implications for the health of the Oujé-Bougoumou population.
At the same time, the Quebec Ministry of Environment began a series of annual sampling and analysis of selected bodies of water in the territory to determine the levels of heavy metal presence. These studies have also confirmed the general conclusions in the Covel report.
To satisfy ourselves as to the validity of the findings in the Covel report, we submitted Mr. Covel’s report to an internationally recognized expert in ecotoxicology, Dr. Evert Nieboer of MacMaster University, for review. In Dr. Nieboer’s report he confirmed the probable validity of the environmental conclusions of the Covel report. He was, however, very critical of the conclusions in the Covel report regarding the health of the Oujé-Bougoumou population which were based on questionable results of hair analysis. The sample population was limited to only 23 people, they were not randomly selected, and hair analysis is generally recognized to be only useful in detecting the presence of mercury.
Dr. Nieboer’s report recommended that there immediately be undertaken a proper scientific health study of the Oujé-Bougoumou population to determine if the human population was at risk as a result of the presence of environmental contaminants.
Following negotiations with Quebec we were able to establish an approach for a proper health study which would be carried out on a joint Cree/Quebec basis. A health study was then designed by the two co-directors, Dr. Evert Nieboer representing the Cree Board of Health and Social Services, and Dr. Evert DeWailly, also a highly respected expert in the field, representing the Quebec National Institute of Public Health.
The health study in Oujé-Bougoumou was carried out during the summer of 2002 and blood, urine and some hair samples were taken from over 200 community members. The results were compared with the community of Nemaska where the life-style and population is similar to Oujé-Bougoumou, unlike the Covel report which inappropriately compared results to a population of young Americans. Based on an analysis of the chemicals associated with mining activities (arsenic, copper, selenium and zinc), it was determined that the Oujé-Bougoumou people are not as risk of internal exposure and therefore no medical intervention was required.
The health study further concluded that it would be prudent to conduct a
comprehensive environmental risk assessment covering the entire Oujé-Bougoumou traditional territory to determine the extent of the presence of heavy metals in the environment for purposes of initiating remediation measures, and also, for purposes of a longer term public health measure to continuously monitor the health of the environment and the health of the human population.
Again, following negotiations with Quebec, we have established a process to conduct a comprehensive environmental risk assessment based on a proposal which we developed together with professional experts in the field. Together with Dr. Peter Campbell of the University of Quebec and the National Institute of Scientific Research, an expert in the field of metal ecotoxicology, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada and he holds a Canada Research Chair in Metal Ecotoxicology, we proposed an “Integrated Risk Assessment”.
The approach which we proposed involves the compilation of all existing data and information related to the environmental and ecological characteristics of the area which includes all information and past studies related to the mining activities in the region. This segment also will include a review of all studies related to the flora and fauna of the area in order to determine the characteristics of the food chain which has a bearing on human health. These data, together with the results of any ongoing or anticipated studies, will form a preliminary “ecological data base”.
In order to ensure neutrality and objectivity the compilation of the existing information and data will be carried out by a third party. This work will be carried out with clear terms of reference and under the supervision of two co-directors, Dr. Peter Campbell representing Oujé-Bougoumou and Denis Laliberte representing the Quebec Ministry of Environment.
Simultaneous with the compilation of existing ecological data, a “traditional land use study” has been conducted to detail the way in which the Oujé-Bougoumou hunters use the land with reference to specific areas. Also, local hunters have had an opportunity to identify specific sites within their hunting territories which are of concern from an environmental perspective. This study has been conducted under the direction of Dr. Len Tsuji of the University of Waterloo who has had extensive experience in conducting such studies and related studies along the west coast of James Bay.
This segment of the overall approach will provide an opportunity to introduce significant and valuable data deriving from traditional knowledge.
All these streams of information, together with the findings of the health study, will then be analyzed and interpreted in the form of a “Preliminary Quantitative Integrated Risk Assessment”. This assessment will indicate where the critical stressors are in the environment, the key receptors in the environment, the gaps in existing information, and priorities for action. The Integrated Risk Assessment will also make recommendations for remediation, monitoring and any further studies which may be needed.
Our approach to this situation has always been guided by a concern for the well-being of the Oujé-Bougoumou population, a determination to ensure that the truth be the goal and that we obtain the best advice possible. This is what we have done.
It has been truly puzzling for us to comprehend the Nation’s persistent failure to understand what has been going on in this file. Rather than asking for the facts and trying to approach this matter in a professional manner you have repeated unsubstantiated claims, you have made wildly inappropriate suggestions, and you have relied on the interpretations of individuals who do not have the professional qualifications to give meaningful advice. In the course of reporting on this story in the way you have you have raised the anxieties of members of the community and added confusion rather than clarity to the issue. You have decided at the beginning what the reality is and you have tried to interpret events to fit what you believe that reality is. This is not journalism—it is propaganda.
You have confused small water studies by the Quebec Ministry of Environment with our comprehensive environmental risk assessment and concluded that information was being withheld. All you needed to do is ask the question and you would have received the right information.
Where we have sought the advice of professional and internationally recognized ecotoxicologists you have relied on a geologist with a Master’s degree. I suppose the Nation knows best.
Where we have sought the advice of physicians and researchers whose professional careers focus on such issues you have relied on a retired political scientist for medical advice. I suppose the Nation knows best.
Where we have tried to be rigorous, scientific and yet compassionate toward our people, you have been speculative, unprofessional and inflammatory. I suppose the Nation knows best.