It is by sheer chance that an American researcher became involved in the contamination crisis currently affecting the community of Ouje-Bougoumou. Chris Coveil was a graduate student in environmental sciences when he headed across the border and north to Ouje-Bougoumou for an eco-tour experience in March, 2000. Chris was a guest of David and Anna Bosum who conduct tours into the bush. While crossing a frozen lake together on a dog sled, one on each runner, David asked Chris, “can mines make fish sick?” David Bosum took his visitor to the Campbell Point mine site. Covell, who had come to Cree territory as part of a cultural exchange to see how tallymen like David Bosum live in the bush, never bargained on what he would discover next. His trained eye immediately spotted a kill-zone kilometers wide. A kill-zone is an area so contaminated that nothing can grow, not even lichens or weeds. “Kill-zones are like red flags to the trained eye,” said Covell, who added that they should be non-existent if companies are complying with current industry standards.
“There were mine tailings everywhere,” Covell recalled as he described the effect on the area as that of a lunar landscape. Recognizing the situation as one of serious toxic contamination, Covell took a sample home with him to have it analyzed at his own expense. The results showed a level of toxicity so high that the lab technician provided his service free of charge, realizing the huge case that Covell had on his hands.
environmental officer for Ouje-Bougoumou, is frustrated over the provincial government’s failure to communicate their findings earlier on. According to him, there have been illnesses, tumors and deformed fish found, but eyewitness reports from the Cree aren’t enough to satisfy a burden of proof based on scientific study.
Kenny Mianscum, Ouje-Bougoumou’s Deputy Chief, lost his father Albert to cancer last September. He also expressed frustration over the lack of information getting to the community. The Mianscum family was only informed that Albert had cancer two weeks before he died. Kenny wonders if his father died as a result of contamination and if his children will be able to live off the land. “It hurts,” said Mianscum, “they’re making an effort to live off land that has already been damaged.” While alarm bells were ringing for tallymen like Albert Mianscum , who caught fish with visible deformities, the government continued to drag its heels on the issue. Recent reports show that the Ministry of the environment knew about the contamination two years before going public, but there are fears that mining activity in the area ran unchecked for much longer. Aerial surveillance photos, obtained from government archives, give evidence of mine tailings and landfills leeching into the lakes.
An estimated cost for an environmental clean up of the affected area, based on evidence gleaned so far, will run somewhere between $500 million and $1 billion dollars. The estimate is partly based on a similar case at Silver City, Idaho, where the Environmental Protection Agency has estimated a clean up costing $359 million – $1 billion and taking some 20-30 years to complete. Three mine sites have been looked at so far and there are at least another 30 known mines in the area, so estimates could run much higher after further investigation.
Concern now centers over what action will be taken and who will take responsibility. “I want to see the government take responsibility,” said Kenny Mianscum, “that includes funding the studies and an environmental clean up.” The Quebec government has expressed a willingness to cooperate with Ouje-Bougoumou, but no plan has been put into action yet. A meeting is being planned between the ministry of the environment and the community, but there are still no details about a specific date, time, and place.
Meanwhile, a seminar/ workshop was held at Dartmouth College on November 1st. Invited to the meeting were 20 experts in the field as well as Cree officials and two representatives from the Quebec Ministry of the environment. The gravity of the crisis was evident from the presence of Masry and Vititoe, the celebrated Southern California law firm involved in the Erin Brockovich case.
At another environmental conference held in Montreal on November 8th, Native representatives had to listen as Paul Charest, an anthropology professor from Laval University, talked about the need for First Nations to adopt capitalism and mentioned how hard a task it is to bring the “fourth world into the first.” Kenny Mianscum, who attended the conference, said, “what really surprised me is that people clapped after his presentation.” Mianscum, Shecapio-Blacksmith and Covell were all visibly disturbed by the overtly racist comments they heard. They expressed concern over whether the toxic crisis in Ouje-Bougoumou would be treated with more care if it were a non-Native community.
“The government talks of development, but when I visit Cree territory I don’t see development, I see destruction,” said Covell. The New Hampshire-based researcher feels that the government should bear responsibility for further studies and a clean up, but also stressed the need for a third party watchdog to make sure the job gets done right. Since detection limits in studies can vary, a split sample run by an independent researcher would ensure an accurate evaluation of the samples.
Getting a rapid response from the Quebec government is vital, according to experts, but there is also concern over the need for the Cree leadership to press the issue. There is speculation that the toxic disaster in Ouje-Bougoumou has been put on the backburner so as not to interfere with the Agreement-in-principle. The fear now is that the people of Ouje-Bougoumou will become neglected pawns in the chess game of politics.