When Voyageur Memorial School teacher Élaine Hébert first saw postings of uranium mining projects near Mistissini in 2008, she, like many locals, did not know the full impact of what the project could mean to the community.

The Matoush project has been talked about throughout Eeyou Istchee ever since the prospect was discovered in 1980. But up until recent years, there hasn’t been much cause for concern over it being developed.

However, Strateco Resources Inc. acquired the holding in 2006 and performed 120,000 meters of drilling to discover a significant quantity of uranium worth pursuing.

The area slated for development surrounds the Otish Mountain area, 260 km northeast of Chibougamau on Category III land.

In November 2008, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) received an application and a project proposal from Strateco for the excavation of an underground exploration ramp to see exactly what lies beneath the surface near the Otish Mountain.

Since then Strateco has been to Mistissini twice for presentations and the CNSC also visited the community on September 24 to make a presentation to ensure that the community knows its rights when it comes to uranium development.

“I am very wary about nuclear exploration,” said Hébert. “I could only be at the meeting for the last half hour because I was at work.”

Hébert said she was concerned because many of those attending the meeting seemed unclear about the prospective health dangers of uranium mining to local communities. She was also perturbed that the meeting was held on a weekday afternoon when many were away moose hunting and so only a handful of community members were able to attend.

In light of this, and knowing some of the dangers of uranium mining, Hébert formed a coalition in Mistissini to see if the project could be stopped. She has since started a petition that has now garnered over 200 signatures and also written to the local Band Council asking for a moratorium on uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee.

According to Hébert, many Mistissini residents are concerned that the project could potentially damage nearby Lake Mistissini via connecting waterways near the project site.

Minnie Longchap, who joined Hébert’s coalition and shares her concerns, said her stake in the coalition is all about the lake that is precious to her, her family and her ancestors.

“I don’t want to be the one to tell my children that I let this happen,” said Longchap. “I want to be able to tell them that I fought and didn’t stop fighting, which is what I am going to do.”

According to MiningWatch Canada, a pan-Canadian initiative supported by environmental, social justice, Aboriginal and labour organizations nationally, there is a lot to be concerned with when it comes to mining exploration, since it can lead to the opening of a fully functional mine.

“The most significant thing to recognize is that much of the radioactivity and the toxic substances that are associated with uranium in the ground will be disturbed, become more available to the environment and will remain on site after the uranium is extracted. As a rule we say that about 85% of the radiation remains on site,” said Ramsay Hart the Canadian Program Coordinator of MiningWatch.

Because uranium is a toxic metal, there is a history of disease associated with uranium contamination, particularly cancers and mutation.

While the project Strateco is currently campaigning for will follow all of Canada’s guidelines when it comes to health and safety standards, there is always the potential for risk.

“If the radioactive particles would just sit on the ground and never go anywhere, then it wouldn’t be much of a concern. But the concern is that they may be end up in the food chain and be distributed through wildlife to people,” said Heart.

The concern, in particular, is for the caribou since a large portion of their diet in the north is comprised of lichen, and, according to some studies, lichen tends to be a sponge for radioactivity. Hart went on to say that it’s not as if someone could have a bite of caribou and drop dead from it, but there are health impacts associated with long-term exposure that could be stacked on top of other health issues that northern Indigenous communities are already dealing with.

Hart said he hadn’t had the opportunity recently to review all of Strateco’s documentation concerning the current stage of the project, but from what he has seen he already has some concerns.

What is on the table at the moment is essentially a test mine for advanced exploration where the workers will be bringing up materials that are radioactive and that have very toxic elements in them and which will be very hard to contain, according to Hart.

“The waste will have to be stored and that is another concern with this project. They seem to be chopping it up into a number of little pieces and we are not getting the whole picture of what they plan to do with the waste,” said Hart.

Once extracted from the earth, the ore will be processed and moved around on the exploration site, this will result in some tailings and waste rock, both of which will have to be managed in perpetuity.

Though Hart had not seen the project’s location in relation to Mistissini on a map, he could verify that certainly adjacent waterways are at risk of being contaminated by dust, by runoff and by contamination of groundwater as the mine will have to pump its water out.

“It will have to be kept dry down in the shaft, and so what happens to that water and how it is managed will be an issue and certainly does pose risks to waterways in the vicinity,” said Hart.

At the same time, Hart said that the whole concept of “uranium exploration” has its own negative connotations as once this ball is rolling, there tends to be a snowball effect. Since companies can spend up to millions on an exploration, they then gain economic momentum as their stock offers get pitched and investments pour in and an expectation is created for local jobs. Companies can then use all of these elements to try to convince the government to move forward in permitting and accepting the project.

At the moment, members of the Cree Regional Authority are participating in the environmental impact assessment of the current phase of the Matoush project. Once the information is ready for release, more public hearings will take place in Mistissini and Chibougamau.

In the meantime, Hébert has presented Mistissini Chief John Longchap with a letter calling for a moratorium on uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee along with the petition and is looking to bring on more experts on the matter to inform the community about the potential health risks.

As far as MiningWatch is concerned, regardless of the potential economic spin-offs, uranium mines are not worth it.

“We have a policy at MiningWatch to call a moratorium on Canadian uranium mining because we do not think that it’s in a local community’s best interest or the country’s best interest to open new uranium mines,” said Hart.

While Strateco was contacted for an interview, nobody from the organization was available to speak at press time.