Nine years after American geologist Chris Covel first raised serious concerns over mining contamination in Ouje-Bougoumou’s territory, a newly released government study is raising more questions than it answers among the community’s members.

The Screening Level Environmental Risk Assessment, or SLERA, was commissioned by the Quebec government following negotiations between the Ouje-Bougoumou band council and the Quebec environment and natural resources ministries, to provide an overview of competing data and conclusions on the contamination issue in O-J territory. The second stage of the study was released to the community during an acrimonious meeting there March 31.

The meeting, attended by about 50 O-J residents, became an outlet for long-simmering feelings of anger, frustration and mistrust over government stalling on the contamination file. As the cover page of the study revealed, it had already been delivered to the Quebec government in February 2008 – 13 months before it was presented to the people of Ouje-Bougoumou.

As O-J Elder John Shecapio Blacksmith would tell the meeting, “There is sickness in the land, and you do studies and studies but we don’t get a cure – we get more studies.”

The gathering began with prepared remarks by a variety of Quebec government, Cree and mining-industry representatives. Abel Bosum, a former chief of Ouje-Bougoumou, said the community wants to understand the issue and what needs to be done. He admitted that there was no new data in this latest release. Instead, it analyzed information presented in previous reports and studies.

“We wanted to know what was found and what harm it might cause us,” said Bosum. He said the studies were layered and could provide a perspective on what people didn’t know.

What people do know is that, starting in the 1950s, over 20 mines opened in Ouje-Bougoumou’s traditional territory. At today’s prices, those mines removed at least $6 billion worth of copper and gold. All of them are now closed and, during the past five years, only the Principal, Copper Rand and Joe Mann mines had any level of activity.

While the region’s mineral wealth was removed long before the community existed as a recognized entity with rights to the territory, the mines left the modern community of Ouje-Bougoumou a costly legacy in the form of toxic contamination in a number of sites.

Bosum said that some places studied showed high concentrations of metals and contaminants, posing a potential risk to the health of humans, animals and fish. He said this was why an O-J Band Council steering committee decided to ask for a Screening Level Environmental Risk Assessment report (SLERA) in conjunction with the two Quebec government ministries.

“When the SLERA finds data gaps it explains what kind of information is needed to better understand the risks,” explained Bosum.

Jonathon Olson, a biologist with the RISCAN environmental assessment firm that partly produced the study, claimed that the new SLERA report even overemphasized the risks. “If we say there is no risk then there will be none,” Olson proclaimed.

Olson qualified his remarks by adding that the SLERA process was not a human-risk evaluation. Steering committee co-chair and toxicology expert Peter Campbell and Olson both noted that there could be a problem with fish spawning levels, but they theorized that overfishing may have contributed to declining fish populations in Chibougamou and Dore Lakes.

Alan Penn, a scientific advisor to the Grand Council of the Crees, assisted in the presentation. Other presenters included Quebec government representatives Denis Laliberté (who also led a government study in 2002 that dismissed health concerns raised by Chris Covel), Edith Van de Walle and Louis Marcoux. They summarized past government actions on the contamination file. All agreed that further studies were needed to fill the data gaps. No dates for beginning – much less completing – these studies were offered.

Van de Walle discussed the Quebec environment ministry activities in the 2006-2008 period. Ministry employees visited 41 sites composed of 18 mine sites, two industrial sites and 21 sites of other purposes, she said. Ouje-Bougoumou council agreed that 34 of these sites could be removed from examination because corporate owners were assuming responsibility to recover and dispose of oil containers, because little or no impact was expected at the sites or because the sites were on another community’s traplines.

Van de Walle said her department was consulting the Municipality of James Bay on cleaning up illegal dumpsites and other concerns that were under its responsibility.

Louis Marcoux discussed some restoration projects the Quebec government has done elsewhere in Quebec and presented the results of these efforts. Marcoux then dropped a bombshell by revealing that Campbell Resources had requested bankruptcy protection, thereby absolving the company of responsibility for cleaning up any contamination it may have caused. Quebec’s natural resources ministry has assumed responsibility for Campbell Resources’ mine-site security.

Marcoux said restoration or other measures would have to wait until legal responsibilities were established. Marcoux noted that Campbell has set aside $2.5 million for restoration and other environmental measures. He added that the Société de développement de la Baie James would probably kick in another $3.5 million and the rest would come from the Quebec government. When the legal proceedings were complete Marcoux said there would be a call for tenders from local companies in conjunction with consultations with the communities for restoration and other measures.

Then it was time for residents and invited guests of Ouje-Bougoumou to ask questions. Leading the charge, Paul Shecapio expressed concern over the lack of risk assessment for people, since “animals move around but humans don’t.”

Next up was Waswanipi Deputy Chief Paul Gull. He observed that this problem is not only a concern of O-J as the water from the territory flows to Waswanipi.

“This affects O-J, but it affects us too,” he said. “I want to be able to look at the children and know we did something for their future. We can study forever but the reality is that there are contaminants and we have to do something. In the old days we could take water straight from the canoe and drink it but we can’t now. I have to give a report on this meeting when I get back to Waswanipi and the only thing I can say is we should be concerned.”

His words were echoed by O-J Elder Johnny Capissisit. He wouldn’t even use the water to make tea. “I don’t trust non-Native scientists when non-Natives made the problems themselves,” Capissisit said. “I look at the environment and it’s contrary to what they say. I feel something’s hidden from us.”

Tallyman and Elder Matthew Wapachee said he remembers when there were no roads in the territory, before many of the people attending the meeting were born.

“Since that time I hunted and the moose were fat and the fish were great. There was no sickness like we see today. The land and the animals are not the same. I’ve seen what the mines and forestry have done. The moose are not so fat and the beaver doesn’t taste the same. This is how I know we are affected,” said Wapachee.

Wapachee also asked for a study on the moose and worried about non-Natives catching fish locally and eating them.

Denis Laliberté replied that he was sensitive to this issue, “Yes, it is very contaminated,” he said in reference to fish in local waters. “We need to make it safe for all Quebecers. They fish and must be safe to do that.”

Wapachee’s peaceful tone contrasted with the anger that several others expressed in their remarks.

Abel Rabbitskin of Mistissini asked for an apology for the community of O-J and the families who lived on the land. “Normally you give an apology when you’ve wronged someone. Are you ready to give one?” Rabbitskin pointedly asked the Quebec government officials and mining representatives at the meeting.

In response, Peter Campbell said everyone had to remember that the mines were established back in the 1950s.

O-J’s Traditional Pursuit Director, Norman Wapachee, observed that the English language can be very specific, while Elders speaking Cree would use a story to make their case. He said there was a need to use TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) with scientific studies. “We should compile Elder’s stories so we have an idea of what has changed,” said Wapachee.

Daisy Wapachee talked about her father feeding his grandchildren with food from the land. She felt that worries about the safety of this food source had to be acted upon. “Let’s do the clean-up job. Let the leadership do the job. We need more than just talk or studies. I’m having a hard time seeing the changes. Pass a resolution to clean it up,” said Wapachee.

Jane Wapachee began her intervention by praising Chris Covel. “No one had to pay Chris to come here today,” she noted.

“When Chris first came here he saw the problem,” Wapachee continued. “He took the time to come here and listen to the people. When I saw him come here again I was glad. The reason why there is mistrust is because of the past. We see what’s happening to the animals and the people. The people who are saying I want something done say it because it’s true. Our history has shown you don’t want to listen to us. But you have to listen and do what we are asking you to do. There is a lack of resolve to solve this problem.”

Wapachee said she felt that government scientists were downplaying the problem and had always done so. “We, the grassroots people, brought our fish and said there’s a problem going on. The tallyman who brought this problem to the surface. Trust him when he says to check this area. He knows, lives and survives on this land. Honour their words.”

Continuing in the same vein, Mary Shecapio Blacksmith stated that she wouldn’t believe government assurances that the fish is safe. “We’ve had enough bullshit from the government,” she said, saying instead that, “I trust this man [Covel].”

Kenny Mianscum spoke of his late father, Albert. “My dad brought back deformed animals and fish. He talked to us about it and what was happening to the land. He told us there is not a square inch of this land that doesn’t have an ancestor’s footprint on it.”

Now, however, Mianscum said his father’s trapline is completely destroyed. “We’re losing a lot of things because of the activities on our traplines,” he said. “We share what little we have but we don’t have enough natural resources for our children to learn our traditional activities. This has gone on long enough. A report every two to four years is no longer good enough for us.”