Northern communities divided over uranium exploration


By Jesse Staniforth – ight-from-the-top

Gearing up for a battle

“We’re going into a strong battle,” said Ugo Lapointe of le Coalition Pour que le Québec ait meilleure mine! (a.k.a. Québec meillure mine), about the recent decision by Mistissini’s Chief and Council to oppose the request by Strateco Resources’ request for advanced uranium exploration on the traditional lands of Mistissini Crees.

Speaking after the Chibougamau public hearings held by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) about Strateco’s application for advanced exploration, Lapointe said, “The Crees are positioning themselves very strongly on this issue, but you have to remember that [Strateco] has spent nearly $100 million on the Matoush project so far. They’ll do everything they can to not lose this project. This may mean legal actions against the Crees or against the Quebec government.”

At the public hearings, twice as many Crees spoke as residents of Chibougamau, and they were overwhelmingly opposed to Strateco’s advanced uranium exploration project. Lapointe indicated that the question of opening uranium mining for the first time in Quebec history makes this an issue like no other.

“There has never been a situation like this in the Quebec mining industry,” he said, referring to the fact that the decisions made about uranium exploration mining may affect the future of such work done in the province.

“I believe the mining industry is going to rally around Strateco to put pressure on the government, and possibly on the Crees, to avoid the precedent of a project being rejected like this. It’s not going to be easy.”

Importantly, Chibougamau Mayor Manon Cyr came out strongly in support of the exploration project, noting that the city had been built upon mineral extraction. She stopped short of endorsing the possibility of uranium mining, however, stressing that there would need to be a comprehensive environmental site assessment before such work could take place. She ended her presentation to the public hearings by referring to an anti-uranium mining document she had been given and asking the CNSC if the information contained in it about health and environmental risks was true.

“In the past two days,” said Lapointe, after the hearings, “we’ve already seen the rhetoric of this battle on the part of the company. And if public opinion swings in favour of the company, the rhetoric will be twofold. They’re going to say that Mistissini and the Crees were ‘brainwashed’ by environmental activists and that their position is misinformed. There’s also the chance that they’re going to say that this project is on Category III lands [of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement], and that all Quebecers should have a say in deciding what kinds of development takes place on those lands.”

This last point may alarm residents of Eeyou Istchee, whose access to Category III traditional lands is limited and who have seen some Cree hunters in recent years charged with firearms violations by the Municipalité de Baie James while hunting on those lands – a subject that Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come broached with Premier Jean Charest in 2010.

“In the short term,” said Lapointe, “I think it’s important for Cree representatives, both from Mistissini and from the Grand Council, to make a clear statement of how they came to this decision. Because I think they did due diligence, looked at many different sources of information, listened to many companies, listened to experts from the Nuclear Safety Commission, and considered independent expertise. They weighed the potential impacts and benefits and made an enlightened decision. So there should be a clear statement to that effect, and that wasn’t done this week.”

Lapointe said the Crees should be thinking about future public relations, which could be anchored now by properly sketching out a detailed description of their position.

“If they don’t do it now,” he said, “it might be difficult to swing public opinion later on. We’ve already heard it from the elected representatives in Chibougamau: the whole set of excuses about how ‘We consulted the experts’. They’re trying to suggest that Chibougamau and [le Conférence Régional des élus de la Baie James] did their homework and the Crees didn’t. I’m sure if we lined up the work they did, we’d find that the Crees actually did more homework before arriving at their conclusion.”