Strateco Resources is asking Quebec Superior Court to declare that Cree opposition to uranium development in Eeyou Istchee cannot be an impediment to provincial approval of their Matoush project in the Otish Mountains.

The company filed a motion for mandamus and declaratory judgment in Quebec Superior Court January 17. In a press release, Strateco stated that it wants the Court “to declare null and void one of the conditions in the COMEX [provincial review] report which, in effect, delegates a provincial jurisdiction by requiring a written agreement be ratified with a third party concerning social acceptability.”

The “third party” in Strateco’s argument is the Cree of Eeyou Istchee. However, the COMEX report said the project could proceed only if it met with Cree approval. Cree opposition to uranium operations in Eeyou Istchee is unwavering.

“The Cree Nation has discussed this and decided it will not give its consent to this project,” said Bill Namagoose, Executive Director of the Grand Council of the Crees. “The problem is that this is a recommendation from COMEX to the Quebec government. The Quebec government has the final decision. But now this is public. If the Quebec government is to ignore or reverse this decision, then we will have some structural problems with Quebec with respect to mining.”

Nonetheless, Strateco hopes to force Quebec to make a final decision on whether the mine will proceed, with or without local acceptance. As the Strateco press release noted, both the Canadian Ministry of the Environment and the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency (CEAA) approved the project last year.

Strateco spokesperson Denis Boucher said the company was not aware of the COMEX requirement for social acceptability until the Cree Grand Council published the COMEX final report on the GCC website.

“That’s when we saw what was in it,” said Boucher. “We were never privy to the content of the report. We had heard through the grapevine that the recommendation of COMEX was positive and recommended that the project be approved, or authorized, by the government. But there was a recommendation of a condition in there that basically made it up to a third party to say whether or not it’s going to authorize the project.”

That’s the basis of Strateco’s legal arguments. “Because if you put it in the hands of a third party to sign an agreement, and failure of [that agreement] results in the project not moving forward, then it becomes a delegation of authority which is illegal based on our submission,” said Boucher.

Namagoose takes exception to the description of the Cree Nation as a “third party.”

“We’re the treaty right holders,” he insisted. “That’s what the Jamesians have to understand. Crees have treaty rights. We’re not a ‘third party’ to anything. This is a condition of the exchange of the land in 1975. The Crees cannot allow people to go outside of the JBNQA.”

Strong Cree opposition to the project culminated in three days of public hearings before the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission last July. Large numbers of Crees spoke out against the project; among them, Mistissini Chief Richard Shecapio and Mistissini council members stood firmly against uranium exploration on their ancestral territories. They were supported by the Grand Council of the Crees (GCC-CRA), which called for a permanent moratorium on uranium exploration, mining, milling or waste dumping in all of Eeyou Istchee.

In a press release stating its intention to contest Strateco’s legal arguments, the GCC-CRA underlined that “the risks to the environment and human health created by uranium mining and waste are unique in scale and duration, and represent a burden on future generations that the Cree Nation is not prepared to assume.”

Despite Cree resistance, last October the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission issued Strateco a five-year license to begin the project. However, the Quebec minister of sustainable development, environment, wildlife and parks called for public hearings at the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE), which have yet to begin.

Strateco strenuously attempted to convince Mistissini residents that the project poses no threat to Crees and their lands. According to its website, Strateco efforts to “integrate local communities into the Matoush Project development process, keep them informed on uranium-related issues and consider their concerns is reflected in numerous measures and initiatives [including m]eetings with the Chief of Mistissini and the Band Council, [m]eetings with the Grand Council of the Crees, [and m]eetings with the Tallymen and the Cree families whose traplines are located on land covered by the Matoush Project.”

Responded Namagoose, “The Grand Council position is that we support the Mistissini people’s decision that they don’t want this mine in their territory. The Cree Nation supports that as a whole. The Grand Council will apply to intervene in the mandamus case. There’s going to be three parties – the company, the Grand Council and Mistissini. We will be speaking on behalf of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA) and the environmental review process.”

Namagoose said that Strateco’s legal argument is fatally flawed because it ignores the JBNQA.

“Our intervention [in this case] says you have to respect the treaty,” explained Namagoose. “The treaty involved here is not just a permit. Some people in the government don’t seem to understand that Crees are treated different because we have treaty rights in the territory. The Jamesians don’t have treaty rights. We’re not part of the [general] population; we enjoy treaty rights that have to be respected. You hear some comments from politicians in the area that Crees are only 50% of the population, and that they should not prevail. But it’s the treaty that should prevail.”

Additionally, said Namagoose, the purpose of Section 22 of the JBNQA, which lays out provisions for dealing with environmental and social impacts of development, was designed with the assumption that the Quebec government would support recommendations made by the COMEX.

“We have a say under Section 22, which covers Category I, II and III lands [with reference to] Crees’ participation through environmental and social impact assessment. One of the conditions of Section 22 says that the community affected should accept the project, that an agreement should be made with them. Now, the community has decided that they will not accept this project. Understand that the Crees will not accept uranium and are prepared to take campaigns against uranium.”

In the GCC-CRA press release concerning the lawsuit, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come states, “Strateco is mistaken in insisting that the federal authorizations that it has obtained to date entitle it to an authorization from Environment Quebec. The federal authorizations cannot determine whether uranium mining and uranium waste are acceptable for the Cree Nation and for Quebec.”

Boucher was guarded when asked to respond to Namagoose’s argument that the Crees are not “a third party” and to the contention that Section 22 of the JBNQA determines that Crees should have the final say over development projects that take place in their territory.

“I don’t have a response to an opposite position,” Boucher said. “Our position was presented and it will be the subject of arguments discussed in front of a judge and a decision will be made at that time. I think it would be totally inappropriate to discuss or make arguments about a case which is going to be in front of the superior court and is about to be heard by a judge.”

Namagoose does not want to speculate about possible outcomes.

“If [the province ignores] the COMEX recommendation, it’s not technically a breach [of the JBNQA]. Under the JBNQA, the Quebec government technically has the last say in this. But the JBNQA designed the first environmental review process in Canada. It was the first of its kind, and had never been done before. That was the Crees’ gift to Canada and to the environment across Canada. A lot of environmental issues have been rolled back because of what the Crees designed in the JBNQA.”