Residents of Ouje-Bougoumou have just learned that they’ve been consuming poisoned fish for at least two years. The community received a warning from the Quebec government that children under six and women who are pregnant or trying to get pregnant should stop eating the fish from two local lakes due to contamination. The advisory came on Oct. 16, two years after the provincial government first detected the contaminants.

Fish contaminated with mercury were discovered in Lac Chibougamau and Lac aux Dores in 1999. “The government has responsibilities,” said Joseph Shecapio-Blacksmith, the local environment administrator for Ouje-Bougoumou. “My question is how come they didn’t tell us when it’s their job?” Shecapio-Blacksmith says tallymen have been worried about possible contamination in the region since mining began in the 1950’s.

Paul Wertman, an adviser to the Cree, said the priority now is to uncover the extent of accumulated heavy metal toxins in the community. Residents of Ouje-Bougoumou will have to be tested and a detoxification program established. An environmental cleanup must be initiated and heavy metal contaminant dumping has to stop. Depending on the type of contaminant to be looked for, residents will be tested through the analysis of head hair, blood, and urine samples.

Current areas of concern are Lac Chibougamau, Lac aux Dores, Lac Obatogamau and the Neminjiche River, but the contamination problem might surface in other areas of the James Bay region. “A lot of this stuff migrates,” said Wertman, in reference to the contaminants, “it’s possible that it has migrated through the James Bay basin.” The water-borne toxins can be carried through streams and rivers and thus be distributed into the lake system. Any area where there is mining activity should be investigated as well.

While it is not yet known if any deaths or illnesses are directly connected to the contamination, there are suspicious deaths over the past few years and cases of cancer that might be related.

“The gravity of the situation is enormous,” said American researcher Christopher Covel, who has been conducting a study with Dr. Roger Masters on behalf of the Cree. “This is no small job to clean this up, this didn’t happen overnight,” Covel added. The New Hampshire-based researcher pointed out that the government has tested for mercury, but tests are specific and you only find what you are looking for. As well as mercury, Covel and Masters have discovered significant levels of cyanide, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, zinc, copper, and selenium, a toxic metal that is know to affect the reproduction of aquatic life.

While some of the metals are known to occur naturally, the levels found in the study indicate that these are not normal deposits. Asked whether this was directly connected to mining, Covel replied, “In my opinion, absolutely. Mercury might have other sources, but as far as the other metals go, it’s mining.” Covel said that the detection of cyanide is linked directly to mining since it does not occur naturally and is used to process gold.

The Quebec government had originally discounted the findings of the Americans as being unreliable, but now accept the results as valid. In an article published in the Montreal Gazette, Environment Minister Andre Boisclair was quoted as saying “I’m not sure the data they have gathered is as scientific as it should be.” The Minister was later quoted saying “the study confirms what we knew already.” This change of heart came after a meeting with advisers and there has been speculation that Boisclair was instructed to act in the best interests of the Agreement in Principle.