Ashley Iserhoff, Deputy Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, was direct in his statement supporting the Chief and Council of Mistissini in their opposition to the proposed Matoush uranium exploration project and mine.

At the end of a long day of public hearings held on June 5 by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Council, Iserhoff responded to the statement by Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio rejecting the advanced exploration project and calling for a moratorium of any uranium mining on Cree traditional lands as well as everywhere in the province of Quebec.

Speaking to the hearings, Shecapio said, “For the Crees of Mistissini, the land is a school of its own and the resources of the land are the material and supplies they need. Cree traplines are the classrooms. What is taught on these traplines to the youth is the Cree way of life, which means living in harmony with nature. This form of education ensures our survival as a people [… It] teaches us to be humble, respectful, responsible, disciplined, independent, sharing and compassionate.”

Principal among the concerns of the community of Mistissini, Shecapio said, was the uncertainty that they could maintain the safety of their food supply in an area where uranium exploration or mining was taking place.

“Because our people are still active on the land, hunting, trapping and consuming the animals,” he explained, “we are concerned that traditional foods may become contaminated with radionuclides, posing a threat to those who eat them. High levels of radionuclides in moose and caribou tissues have been reported in animals near uranium mines. This indirect exposure can lead to serious health issues for the people who eat contaminated animals.”

In his statement to the hearings, Iserhoff spoke at length about the issue, touching on a variety of subjects. After first commending the courage and determination of those who had spoken that day, noting that they “demonstrate[d] the vitality and good health of the community of Mistissini, which is its strength”.

Iserhoff went on to comment that it is not only the – very valid – concerns about food safety that leave many in the Cree Nation uncomfortable with the idea of uranium exploration and mining.

“The life circle impacts of the nuclear field give rise to serious concerns among the Crees that their environment and health will be subjected to severe repercussions for both this and future generations,” he said. “There exists a long history of mining in Eeyou Istchee, but not with uranium mining. It is of crucial importance to take into account the fact that this type of mineral development would be a first in Quebec.”

Moreover, Iserhoff said that another major concern was that an approval for the application by Strateco would open the door to greater uranium development and mining. One mine on its own was enough of a worry for the community, but the cumulative possibility of many was even more concerning.

At the present time, said Iserhoff, the Grand Council of the Crees believed “a life circle approach to evaluate the impacts and the risks as well as the costs and benefits would be more appropriate and would determine the cumulative impacts of uranium development more clearly. To limit the review to the exploration stage and its matters of regulatory interests does not allow our people to address all their concerns.”

Iserhoff added, “The Cree Nation of Mistissini must be given the opportunity to give or withhold their free, prior and informed consent to the uranium development. They need to know in what manner their traditional territories and natural resources will be affected. […] Any project of this type must have the support of the Cree Nation.”

Iserhoff also underlined how necessary it is for anyone who wishes to undertake uranium mining in the Cree territories to secure the trust and confidence of the Cree people. The simple guarantee of safety by the CNSC and Strateco Mines, he explained, were not enough to support the faith of the people of Mistissini.

“In the last decades,” he said, referring to the rapid expansion of mining and other resource development in the Eeyou Istchee since the late 1970s, “our people have gone through many rapid changes that have affected our traditional culture. People have seen the pristine environment modified by various types of contaminants stem from the cumulative impacts of various development projects.”

Mentioning the longstanding fallout that resulted from the mercury contamination of Cree communities by earlier mines, Iserhoff stressed, “Whether or not the impacts are low or high, the Cree remain mistrustful and this lack of trust will transform their behaviour and relationship with the land. The nourishing land will become a threat, and weaken their traditional way of life on the land.”

Iserhoff underlined, “We need to lessen the threat, both the perceived and physical impact on our traditional way of life brought about by uranium exploration and exploitation development on our lands. […] Serious concerns exist regarding ionizing radiation, future atmospheric releases of radon gas, the contamination of groundwater and surface water by radionuclide, heavy metals and other contaminants, and of course the potential contamination of the wildlife and vegetation. A large part of land could be affected, not just by the physical impacts themselves of the project, but by the perceptions and reactions of our people in relation to the impacts of the project and others like it.”

Noting that the Cree Nation has been, and remains, open to mining development within its territory, Iserhoff stressed that there was nothing frivolous about the Cree people’s concerns around the Matoush project. To emphasize the extent to which the Nation of Mistissini has informed itself, he pointed to the series of information sessions and work-group meetings held in 2011, along with a survey of on the prospects of uranium exploration and mining in Mistissini traditional lands – which showed that a majority of community members opposed such work.

“We understand that the Cree Nation of Mistissini considers that the information presented by the project proponent to date have not materially improved the community’s perception of the project or met with the community’s expectations,” said Iserhoff. “The Grand Council of the Crees (Eeyou Istchee) has already stated its support to the Cree Nation of Mistissini for its position regarding the project. Our support for the Cree Nation of Mistissini’s position has not changed, and we now wish to reiterate our support.”

Also giving a presentation the same day was Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr, who noted that the municipality and others nearby were founded on mineral development. Cyr said that city officials had had ample opportunities to see for themselves that the project was safe, and would harm the environment, workers or the general public.

However, Cyr stressed that her support was only for the proposed advanced uranium exploration, and said that before a mining operation was to occur, a full and rigorous environmental impact assessment would have to be undertaken.

She ended her presentation on a strange note, citing a flyer that had been delivered to all city officials calling for a moratorium on uranium mining in Quebec due to health and environmental risks. The information contained in this flyer, she said, was troubling, and she closed her speech by saying she would like to know whether or not the warnings were based on fact.