No other issue has reignited the Cree spirit to fight for the rights of the land than the debate over whether uranium exploration should be allowed on Cree territory near Mistissini in the last 20 years.
It was in fact 20 years ago when a dedicated bunch of Crees led by then Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come travelled to the US and Europe to fight another project for development that also did not meet Cree approval – the Great Whale project.
In the last issue of the Nation, we published excerpts of the June 5-6 hearings in Mistissini as well as a reaction interview with Strateco President Guy Hébert.
In that the Crees of Eeyou Istchee are subject to their own governance, the Nation decided that it was also necessary to see exactly where the Grand Council of the Crees stands on this issue.
The Nation: Given that Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio and so many of the people of Mistissini have come out against uranium mining on nearby traditional territory, how much leverage do you think the Crees will have in getting this project halted in the context of the protections of the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA)?
Coon Come: The Cree Nation has the fundamental human right to consent or withhold consent to industrial or other development in our territory. We have always asserted others do not have the right to make decisions for the Cree people that will fundamentally affect Cree communities, Cree health, the environment and the future well-being of Eeyou Istchee for generations to come. The environmental and social impact assessment process under the JBNQA provides just one mechanism for proposed development projects to be considered and Cree rights to be protected. But there are many others that transcend the JBNQA. In the past, Eeyou have taken all available steps in Quebec, the rest of Canada and internationally to assert and protect our Cree Aboriginal, treaty and other human rights. The leverage available to the Cree Nation is directly proportional to the unity, determination and courage of our people, and not any external factor.
TN: Strateco is adamant that this project get underway despite the views of the Crees on uranium and they are currently going with the stance that social acceptability for the project is not an attainable goal because the Crees have been “brainwashed” by “radical activists”. Do you believe that the Crees have been misled?
CC: These statements by Strateco betray a fundamental paternalism towards the Crees, and a deep misunderstanding of our status in Eeyou Istchee. We have always lived here, and we will still be here in thousands of years. We take seriously our responsibility to ensure that the land that sustains us will remain healthy and truly sustainable for all future generations. Our lives in this land do not depend on the booms and busts of mineral prices and the industrial ambitions of faraway people.
In relation to uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee, “social acceptability” is not a checkbox that industry proponents like Strateco can simply “tick” by means of promises and reassurances delivered by industry spokesmen. Uranium mining and refining leaves behind enormous quantities of radioactive and toxic tailings that will require perpetual and effective containment and maintenance for hundreds of thousands of years to come. Strateco cannot deny this fact. The Cree people will decide for ourselves whether we are prepared to accept this long-term burden and risk in Eeyou Istchee, long after Strateco and even the nuclear industry no longer exist.
TN: Strateco President Guy Hébert recently told the Nation that they have not been given a fair shot in Mistissini because the community had allowed some of these “insane” activists access to the students at the high school, while his company had not been given the same access to the community’s youth. Hébert said he found this so disturbing that he was planning on taking this “file” up with the Grand Council since it is his perspective that these youth are being grossly misinformed. What is the Grand Council’s response to this? Do you think the company should have access to the kids?
CC: Many times in the past, we have been told that the independent expertise that we obtain is not trustworthy, and that we must accept what the industry people feed us. Crees, like everyone else, have the right to access the best possible expertise that we can find, and to determine for ourselves what is good information. There can be no doubt that M. Hébert’s message is being delivered into Cree communities, by Strateco and by government. There is a communication agreement in place between Strateco and Mistissini. If M. Hébert is now suggesting that the Cree people and youth should only listen to one side – the industry side – he is making a terrible mistake.
I am very proud of Cree youth. I’m a youth! I am always impressed by the initiative, passion and social commitment that our youth show, including concerning Strateco’s uranium mining plans. Cree youth have always played an important role in inspiring our people. I have great faith in the ability of Cree youth and all Cree people to study and understand these important issues, and to participate in our nation’s decision-making processes.
TN: If the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission turns around and grants access to Strateco despite the wishes of the Cree people, what would be the next step that the Grand Council would take on the Crees’ behalf given that the community is opposed and wants to fight to protect the land?
CC: Uranium mining is an enormous global industry, and at the moment it is very profitable. Strateco is just one of many well-funded corporations that want to extract uranium from Eeyou Istchee and leave radioactive and toxic waste – 99% of the ore extracted from the ground – behind for the Crees to live with for thousands of years to come. If the Cree Nation wishes to prevent uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee, we must expect a hard fight from industry and from government.
The Grand Council is the servant of the Cree people. It is not for the Grand Chief or the Grand Council to decide whether uranium mining and uranium waste in Eeyou Istchee are acceptable to the Cree Nation. This is a decision that the Cree people must make. The people of Mistissini have spoken clearly. The Cree Nation now has a decision to make about uranium mining and uranium waste. This is a decision the Cree Nation will make promptly, with care and deliberation, and after full discussion. This is the Cree way.
TN: Would the Grand Council be willing to support the people in Mistissini in a lengthy and large-scale campaign similar to the Great Whale fight in 1990s?
CC: Of course! The Grand Chief and the Grand Council will always support the Cree Nation in asserting and protecting Cree rights.