Stand Against Uranium: The James Bay Crees' fight against uranium development
My people, the Eeyouch or James Bay Crees, call our lands Eeyou Istchee, which means "The People's Land". Our territory is located in northern Quebec, on the eastern shore of James Bay and Hudson's Bay. For thousands of years, we have lived off our lands by hunting, fishing and trapping. Our family hunting grounds cover the entire area of Eeyou Istchee. Our people have used and continue to use the entire territory of Eeyou Istchee to practice our traditional way of life.
For thousands of years, our identity has been shaped by our relationship with the land and all that that it contains. Today, we face the very real challenge of maintaining our culture and identity in the context of intensifying development on our territory. Our people continue to practice many aspects of our traditional way of life. We have also fought to ensure that we are active participants in many of the development activities occurring on our lands.
Recently, my people have confronted the challenge of uranium development in Eeyou Istchee. This is not the first time development has threatened our territory and our way of life, and I am certain it will not be the last. It is a challenge that we have taken very seriously.
My people have concluded that the risks associated with uranium development represent an unacceptable threat to our very way of life in Eeyou Istchee. Uranium mining could cause severe and irreparable harm to my people and the animals and lands that sustain us. Radioactive and toxic emissions and wastes from uranium mining will remain with our future generations for hundreds of thousands of years. These risks, and the burdens they create for generations to come, are unacceptable to us.
We have drawn a hard line against uranium development in Eeyou Istchee. The Cree Nation's position is that our consent and participation is required for any and all development on our land. And we have said NO to uranium.
Uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee
The Cree Nation's consideration of and eventual opposition to uranium mining began in 2006 in the community of Mistissini, Quebec, one of the nine communities of the James Bay Cree Nation. In that year, Strateco Resources, a junior mining company, commenced an intensive program of uranium exploration on the family hunting grounds of the Mistissini community in the Otish Mountains. In 2008, Strateco announced its plans to undertake advanced exploration efforts at a site in the Otish mountains at the crest of two major watersheds that bring water to Mistissini and throughout Eeyou Istchee. Eventually, if the results of the advanced exploration project were positive, Strateco intended to build a large-scale uranium mine and mill at this site.
When confronted with this prospect, Mistissini's leaders consulted experts in uranium as well as experts in the land and traditional practices. Town hall meetings were held. The community was polled and the decision was made: Mistissini would not support uranium mining on its territory.
In 2010, the Cree Nation of Mistissini passed a resolution asking the government of Quebec to impose a moratorium on uranium mining on its territory. In 2012, the Grand Council of the Crees – the political organization representing all the Cree communities and people – passed a unanimous resolution banning uranium development throughout all of Eeyou Istchee.
The Cree Nation did not make this decision lightly. We are not anti-development. We support and participate in sustainable and responsible resource development within our territory, in mining, forestry, hydroelectric development and tourism. But uranium is a special case.
Cree consent is required for all development activities on our land. We must be a real partner in development projects in our territory. Our rights must be respected, appropriate measures must be taken to protect the environment, and social and economic benefits must flow to our communities. Most importantly, we cannot support development that is incompatible with Cree values or our way of life.
The Cree Nation's Stand Against Uranium
While there is much that concerns the Cree Nation about uranium development in Eeyou Istchee, there are three areas that are particularly troubling.
First of all, uranium development presents serious health and environmental impacts. We are particularly concerned about the risk of contamination of our water, through a leak, spill or breach. As a result of the river diversions and flooding that accompanied hydroelectric development in Eeyou Istchee, the water bodies in our territory are heavily interconnected As a result, contamination of the water could have far-reaching, disastrous effects on our communities.
For Crees, our health and the environment are deeply interconnected. It is impossible to speak of environmental impacts without also speaking of the health implications that they present. Land on which we can hunt and trap without fear, healthy animals and plants, and uncontaminated drinking water are the building blocks for Cree health. Uranium development presents serious risks to the environment, to our health and, as a result, to our traditional lifestyle.
Secondly, uranium tailings present unique long-term hazards which in turn create long-term technological and institutional challenges that cannot be ignored. Uranium tailings must be monitored for thousands of years. This time period defies human understanding and generates significant uncertainties and unknowns. It makes long-term stewardship needs impossible to predict and therefore impossible to adequately plan for. At the end of the day, is the local population that truly bears the risks associated with these hazards.
Finally, the inadequacy of the financial guarantees that mining companies are required to set aside for uranium mining projects are a source of concern. This systemic deficiency raises serious questions about who will be responsible for technological failures and unforeseen events if and when they do occur.
The financial guarantees required by Canadian and Quebec regulatory bodies to cover monitoring, remediation and unforeseen events are completely insufficient to deal with the long-term obligations imposed by uranium tailings management. Under the approach adopted by provincial authorities and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, Canada's nuclear industry watchdog, the evaluation of future costs is considered over decades not centuries, let alone millennia. There is therefore inadequate funding set aside to remedy the damages that could occur, reinforcing the concern that the local communities will ultimately bear the financial risks along with health and environmental risks.
Standing together against uranium
The Cree Nation has fought hard against uranium development on our land, and our refusal to back down has paid off. In 2013, the Government of Quebec refused to grant Strateco a permit to begin advanced uranium exploration efforts. The Government's decision was largely due to the fact that the project lacked social acceptability amongst the Crees, the population that would be most directly impacted by the project.
The Government of Quebec has also mandated the Bureau d'audiences publiques sur l'environnement (BAPE), Quebec's environmental watchdog, to hold public hearings and undertake a review of the industry. The Government declared a moratorium on uranium mining until the BAPE issues its recommendations.
The BAPE held public hearings throughout the province, including in Eeyou Istchee, from May to December 2014. In December 2014, as the BAPE hearings were coming to a close in Montreal, a group of Cree youth marched over 850 km through Northern Quebec, braving the elements of the Canadian winter, to hand-deliver this message to BAPE: the Cree Nation stands united in its opposition to uranium development in Eeyou Istchee, our traditional territory.
We have said from the start that once Quebecers learned the true facts about uranium development, they will join the Cree Nation in our stand against uranium. The Cree Marchers experienced this firsthand: in every community they passed through, Quebecers came out to support their position and march with them. The BAPE hearings also proved this to be true. During the BAPE's public hearings, the opposition to uranium mining in the province was overwhelming. In fact, the BAPE received more submissions regarding uranium that it had ever received for any environmental hearing it had ever conducted. It has never been more obvious that Quebec as a whole stands with the Cree Nation in our opposition to uranium.
We are grateful for the support of our allies. This support has never been more crucial. In May 2015, the BAPE will be issuing its recommendations to the Government of Quebec, and our stand must remain unwavering. Two upcoming events in Quebec will help keep uranium in the spotlight: the World Uranium Symposium will be held in Quebec City from April 14 to 16, and the International Uranium Film Festival will be held in Quebec City from April 15 to 25, with additional screenings in Mistissini (April 18) and Montreal (April 23).
Now, more than ever, the Cree Nation, its allies and all of Quebec must stand united against uranium development. There are considerable benefits associated with development, but the challenges associated with uranium mining are numerous and cannot be ignored. For the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee, the long-term management of uranium tailings and the stewardship obligations imposed on future generations are fundamentally incompatible with Cree values, culture and way of life. For this reason, we have taken a Stand Against Uranium. We invite you to stand with us.
Matthew Coon Come is the Grand Chief of the Grand Council of the Crees, the political body representing the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee (Quebec). He is known throughout Canada and internationally for his tireless leadership and advocacy to protect and advance the aboriginal, treaty and other human rights of indigenous peoples in Canada and internationally.
Stand Against Uranium:
Grand Council of the Crees: www.gcc.ca
World Uranium Symposium
The World Uranium Symposium will be held in Quebec City, Canada, from April 14 to 16. The Symposium will address issues arising from the life cycle of uranium, from mining to its end-uses and byproducts for civilian or military purposes. Both scientific and community-based, the Symposium is organized around the following themes: health, environment, economy, ethics, governance, human rights and the rights of indigenous peoples.
The Symposium is jointly organized by Physicians for Global Survival, the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, Nature Quebec, the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, and the Coalition pour que le Québec ait meilleure mine. It also receives support from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (Swiss chapter), the First Nations of Quebec and Labrador Sustainable Development Institute, the Cree Nation of Mistissini, MiningWatch Canada, and a number of other local, national and international partners.