Jimmy Mianscum drew the big picture as he spoke to a community meeting in Ouje Bougoumou last week. Speaking in Cree, the 82-year-old Elder and former chief described some of the many things he has seen change in his lifetime. People he knew once knew routinely lived to ages of more than 100 years, he said, living on a diet primarily of fish and wild game. But since the development of forestry and mining in the region, he has observed the natural world around him affected in many different ways. He has seen the residues of pollution discolouring the snow. The snow of course melts every spring and carries those pollutants into the streams and lakes of the area.

The fish, in turn, eat whatever is in the water. The fish are different now than what he remembers as a young person. He has likewise seen many changes in the animals, changes that are not part of nature. And the Cree people don’t live as long anymore.

He spoke simply, and the people of Ouje listened with respect. The changes he described are at the heart of concerns raised by last year’s study by Christopher Covel that looked at heavy metal contamination of the area’s sediment, surface water and fish quality. This meeting, held June 18 at the Ouje band office, was intended to provide Ouje residents with information and to ask them to participate in a blood-and-urine testing program that would either confirm or disprove the troubling findings of the Covel study.

The meeting capped a flurry of discussion and debate over the past two weeks. A week previous, a panel debate in Montreal at the National Film Board cinema discussed the issues raised in the excellent CBC North documentary screened that evening, Albert’s Fish, by filmmakers Abel Rabbitskin and Jeff Dorn. Both gatherings heard expressions of frustration and worry over whether the Crees of Ouje-Bougoumou, and their environment, have been slowly poisoned by decades of gold and copper mining in the region.

It’s a familiar historical scenario for Native communities around the world: the wealth is taken from their lands with nary a thought for its original inhabitants; left behind in exchange is the devastation of the natural world that once provided them with health and sustenance.

It’s not surprising then, that many people in Ouje are suspicious that the same provincial government that looked the other way or quietly condoned the destruction are also responsible for investigating, diagnosing and, ultimately, curing the land and its people. Underlying the suspicions for some is the recent deal to “enter into a new relationship” with that same government.

“I feel that there is a lack of trust,” Flageole Mackay told the meeting. “This is an emotional thing. It is important to take our time to choose with whom we are going to work. It is important to preserve our integrity and our pride. The process of healing is going on. If we want all the people to participate in this process – such as blood tests – a lot of communication needs to be done between the population and the structure.” * * * McMaster University toxicology professor Dr. Evert Nieboer was tasked to win that trust at the Ouje meeting. He was brought in as an independent scientist to critically review the Covel findings and recommend further action. Nieboer has since been chosen to lead the health study in partnership with provincial researcher Dr. Eric Dewailly, of the National Institute for Health.

He told the meeting that his study will be based on biological monitoring of blood and urine from Ouje volunteers. They would also be required to provide personal information, such as details about their occupation, eating habits and whether they smoke or inhale second-hand smoke. “This is all essential to understanding the samples gathered,” he said. “It is very important for the success of the study that we have large numbers of people participating, as many as possible from the community. It is my hope that the community would accept such an approach.” And despite his earlier criticisms of Covel’s choice of head-hair analysis, he suggested taking hair samples under strict controls for experimental comparison purposes. Still, he disagreed with Covel’s recommendation for medical intervention. “There must be a real medical reason for doing it.” Nieboer said the health study could be completed by early 2003. Samples would be collected in the fall. Lab results would be in by Christmas and their interpretation completed early in the new year.

The environment study, however, would take at least two to three years, he said. “If somebody is willing to pay, it can be done quite quickly.” More likely, it would take a year to collect existing information and define the gaps that are missing. Another year would be spent collecting new information. All told, it could take three or four years for a good environmental assessment.

“One of the mines is reopening,” he noted. “My feeling is that the community should be proactive – there is enough evidence that the existing way of dealing with the mine tailings is not satisfactory. You must get after the ministry of environment. In Ontario, the law would require immediate remediation. So be proactive, and show some teeth.” * * * It’s this side of the equation that seems far less well-defined. Abel Bosum, the Grand Council of the Crees negotiator, said Quebec is expected to undertake a comprehensive system of environmental assessment. But there is no schedule, nor a detailed plan, that Quebec is – at least so far – willing to share with the Crees. “Our objective is to have a Cree component to that study,” Bosum said. This is where Mackay and others, such as the late Albert Mianscum’s daughter, Margo, want to be sure that they can trust the process and the result. It’s clear they do trust Covel to deliver. But some in the community evidently are not happy about that prospect, or that Covel chose to attend last week’s meeting. His future role in the whole process is clouded, at best.

“I am asking if people of Ouje Bougoumou can help decide who will be involved in this project?” Mianscum asked. “Who will make the final decision? Will the opinion of the people matter? If people say they want Dr. Covel involved, who decides on that?” Bosum said that a subsequent community meeting in August would address those issues, as plans solidified and details were provided. As he explained at the Montreal meeting the previous week, information will be managed by a committee of independent experts such as Nieboer, Ouje representatives, the Grand Council and the Cree Health Board. “We chose to set up a process to address the problem,” Bosum said. “Our first reaction was ‘where do we turn to for help?’ We’re thankful Chris came up here and collected samples. The Covel report was a wake-up call for our people. We realize this is something serious. The numbers we don’t necessarily understand. There is great concern over what is known and what is not known.” But we had to develop a plan to address the problem. It’s the jurisdiction of the Cree Health Board. And we realized we did not have the resources.” That is something Bosum says the new “Paix des braves” is supposed help address, by supplying new resources and structures for the Cree to be proactive about their environmental health. “The agreement provides new measures for Crees to pursue,” said Bosum. “There are more resources to address these things. Secondly, the agreement affirms any rights we already had – it doesn’t take anything away.” For instance, he said that hydro projects must be subject to environmental impact assessments. It’s the same with mining, though there remain no environmental assessment provisions for forestry operations, Bosum acknowledged.

He was then asked during the Montreal panel discussion whether the financial compensation structures of the AIP would form an overwhelming incentive to accept development projects – such as the proposed vanadium mine – that might have an adverse impact on the environment. Indeed, as Emma Saganash of CBC North noted, maps of Cree territory have recently been papered over with a colour-coded crazy quilt denoting tens of thousands of mining claims.

“There is certainly a challenge there for the Cree with the revenues deriving from natural resources,” Bosum responded. “On the other hand, it’s true we have to deal with those impacts. Our responsibility is to ensure we don’t abandon the values we hold and the responsibility we have to protect the land.” Christopher Covel is a passionate, outspoken man. The New Hampshire resident is also an environmental scientist, geophysicist, hydrogeologist and a geologist, as he listed off during an interview in Montreal after the NFB panel discussion. Depending on the fragility of particular sensitivities north of the border, he may appear to some as a brash American. It is certain that he doesn’t lack confidence or conviction.

So he doesn’t bat an eye when confronted with criticism of his work in the Ouje region. And in Dr. Evert Nieboer’s critical review of his study, that came down to the credibility of the head-hair analyses that were employed to test for heavy metal contamination.

It’s “extremely controversial science,” he concedes. “But it is also cutting-edge science with great promise as a screening technique.” Still, it does annoy him that some think he intended the lab results from his limited head-hair sample – 23 Ouje individuals – to be the final verdict on health risks facing the community. “It is just an indication of what may or may not be there,” he explained.

And he worries that too much of the debate has turned toward an argument over methods as opposed to the real issue: investigating the extent of toxic contamination of the community and the local environment, and then cleaning it up.

“I think a lot of the focus of the Nieboer report was on assaulting the credibility of head-hair analyses,” Covel said. “Good scientific practice is to have results reviewed and criticized. And the jury is still out on head hair. The only way to way to really know is to use more invasive techniques such as blood and urine testing. The hair sampling was done as a preliminary, non-invasive method to see if more invasive investigations were warranted.” He emphasizes that the Nieboer review of his study confirmed the need for a more extensive health study and an environmental assessment of the damage already done. “It’s important that people understand that the real issue is cleaning up the contamination that everyone agrees exists.” But what really gets under his skin is the attitude of the Quebec government. It’s now been more than two years since he first began investigating heavy-metal contamination in the Ouje region, he notes. “But the Quebec government has always refused to meet with me. If the government of Quebec wants a new spirit of cooperation with the Crees, it would get in rank and prevent this from ever happening again.” Indeed, the Quebec government was conspicuous by its absence -despite repeated invitations – at the panel discussion at the National Film Board in Montreal. And Covel’s experience with the province makes him doubt Quebec’s commitment to a thorough investigation. “They don’t want me involved because I may create problems for them,” he said. “I am an independent scientist that is bought and paid for by nobody. Facts are facts and data are data. So let’s get the facts and stop sticking our heads in the sand.” His most important message: “The problem must be resolved. If people can work together to get the science, identify problem locations and begin remediation, we can arrest it at its source. And that would create more jobs than any mine.” But, I ask, wouldn’t that cost a lot of public money. “Seven figures, potentially,” Covel responds matter-of-factly. And while we were on the topic of money, I felt compelled to put to him the burning question: was he motivated at all by any prospect of lucrative work in Ouje-Bougoumou?

Covel answers quickly but straightforwardly: “I don’t need their money. I have pleijty of work. I am here because I gave my word to the chief and the community that I would do everything in my power to bring environmental justice to the people of Ouje-Bougoumou. “That’s my mission: clean up the mess. As long as the Cree people keep asking me to be involved, I will remain involved. If they tell me they don’t want my help, all anyone will see of me are my tail lights going down the road.” Judging by the bewildered looks, the question by Ouje Environment Officer Joseph Shecapio Blacksmith may have taken people by surprise. Blacksmith wondered aloud during last week’s community meeting whether Ouje and Cree health authorities would take advantage of the offer of help by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Christopher Covel’s representative in Congress happens to be John Sununu, a powerful Republican member of the lower house of the U.S. government (for now, anyway – Sununu is also apparently favoured to win the New Hampshire Republican primary for this fall’s Senate elections). The offer came after Covel made inquiries about environmental and decontamination expertise to Sununu’s office.

“Many people here are affected by this issue,” Blacksmith explained. “Canada and the United States have the same problem. Maybe we could work with these people.” Covel and Blacksmith gained an appointment with Sununu in Manchester, NH, last fall.

On meeting with Sununu, the Congressman asked them, “What can I do to help you people?” Said Blacksmith last week: “It was the first time anyone in a position of authority ever offered to help. It is up to us to determine what level of help to ask for.

Sununu’s office diligently followed up on the meeting with inquiries at the EPA. The EPA’s acting regional administrator in Denver, Jack McGraw, apparently eager to assist, responded Jan. 3 with a list of expert contacts and potential laboratory resources.

“To get discussions started with EPA’s counterparts in Quebec, it would be most helpful if we could have the name and number of who to contact to explore opportunities for the technical assistance requested,” wrote McGraw. “Once we have more specific information on what is needed, we will be able to determine which EPA resource would be most helpful.” McGraw also noted his office has “significant experience in mining environmental issues.” The letter was passed on, eventually, in April with an explanatory note from Sununu’s office that “the disruption in Congressional mail due to security concerns delayed the arrival of several of the enclosures…” (Meaning the letter had to be irradiated in the security furor over last fall’s Anthrax scare.) More information the Colorado regional EPA office about environmental impacts of mining can be found online at wmv.epa.gov/Region8/land_waste/mining/mining.html