This is a transcript of the speech held by Grand Chief Dr. Matthew Coon Come in front of the BAPE commission in Montreal on the topic of uranium exploitation in Cree territory.
Good evening. I am the Grand Chief of the Cree Nation of Eeyou Istchee. I am very pleased to be here, at the very start of your mandate, to provide submissions to you on behalf of the Cree Nation. I know that the BAPE commission will be travelling to Eeyou Istchee several times over the course of the mandate, and I look forward to welcoming you to our communities. I know that you will hear from my people directly, about their opposition to uranium development activities in our territory.
I have chosen to travel to Montreal to present to you today, on the first day of your mandate, for several reasons.
First, I am here to affirm the Cree Nation’s position regarding uranium.
Uranium exploration, uranium exploitation and uranium waste emplacement are issues of pressing concern for my people. Our position is clear: uranium development is not welcome in our territory, Eeyou Istchee. We oppose uranium mining because the environmental risks and health risks posed by uranium mining are too high. Large quantities of radioactive waste must inevitably be produced in the course of mining uranium, and this waste will remain dangerous and toxic for hundreds of thousands of year. This is a burden on future generations that we are not prepared to assume.
Our opposition to uranium mining stems from our connection to the land, and to the animals and plant life that rely on that land. We are not opposed to responsible mining. We realize the vast resource potential of our land and have consented to many responsible development projects, including mining projects. But uranium is a special case. We do not consent to uranium development.
Over the course of the next year, you will hear this from the people in Mistissini, you will hear it from the people in Chisasibi, and you will hear it from the people in every Cree community. I expect that over the course of the next year you will also hear similar sentiments expressed in other communities that have been touched by the prospect of uranium mining projects, across Quebec, from Sept-Iles to Gaspesie to the Outaouais.
I have therefore chosen to present to you at the opening of this process, to deliver this important message. The views of the people who live near the uranium deposits, the people who must bear the real risks, must be at the forefront of your work over the next year. This is essential, even when this work occurs in Montreal or Quebec City.
There is a second reason I have chosen to travel to Montreal to present to you today. I am here to confirm and convey the invitation of the Cree Nation for the BAPE to visit our territory.
Eeyou Istchee is subject to a unique environmental and social protection regime, under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. The JBNQA is a constitutionalized treaty, and takes precedence over any legislation. The JBNQA clearly provides for a regime of social protection as well as environmental protection, and specifies special guiding principles that apply to all development in the territory. The JBNQA affirms the Cree Nation’s special, constitutionally-protected rights.
The BAPE does not ordinarily have jurisdiction in Eeyou Istchee. However, the Cree Nation recognized the need for a broad and independent inquiry and consultation process, regarding the uranium sector as a whole in Quebec. We recognized that proponent-led project reviews do not tend to provide for an assessment of the true costs and risks of uranium mining. And we recognized that our concerns about uranium are shared by others, elsewhere in Quebec.
The Cree Nation therefore resolved to participate in the BAPE review process. We entered into a nation-to-nation agreement with Quebec prior to the announcement of the BAPE’s mandate. This agreement confirms the Crees’ consent for the BAPE to conduct the inquiry and public consultation process in our Territory. This agreement also confirms the commitment of the Québec government to uphold Cree treaty rights under the James Bay and Northern Québec Agreement.
I understand that the BAPE has since entered into an agreement with the James Bay Advisory Committee on the Environment. This is an essential step in ensuring the Cree treaty rights are properly respected throughout the BAPE process. It is my hope that this agreement has laid the foundation for a strong and mutually respectful working relationship. The Cree Nation will continue to play an active role throughout this process, to ensure our treaty rights are properly respected.
It is my understanding that the purpose of this first phase of the inquiry process is for the commission to hear the questions of the population, in order to better identify the issues that will be studied over the course of the mandate.
The Cree Nation has three major concerns regarding uranium mining.
The Cree Nation’s first major concern involves the environmental risks associated with uranium mining, both today and for generations to come.
As I have already mentioned, our connection with our land forms the basis for our opposition to uranium. The environmental risks of uranium mining — to the ecosystem, to our water resources and to our way of life — are too great to be acceptable. Our connection with this land and its inhabitants is not something abstract and intangible – it is at the core of our way of life. As such, it is our responsibility to protect and conserve the land for generations to come.
For instance, right now and over the last few weeks, you will not find many Cree in our communities. It is Goose Break, and everyone is out on the land, hunting geese. This is a Cree tradition since time immemorial. Much has changed in our communities over the last three generations, but our way of life remains fundamentally connected to the land. Our way of life relies on the land for all that we have. In turn, we must respect the land for all that it has to offer.
The Matoush project, for example, is located at the crest of two major watersheds that bring water to and from our communities. The animals and plant life on our territory also depend on this water. The damage that will be caused by possible contamination to these watersheds poses a risk that the Cree Nation is unwilling to accept.
When assessing the potential and value of the uranium industry, we must consider the whole lifecycle of uranium, from uranium mining and milling to waste disposal. You cannot develop a uranium mine without creating problems that will last for generations. The Cree Nation is determined to protect our economies and way of life against the unique and grave threat posed by uranium mining and uranium waste, today and for thousands of years to come.
This is the real risk that must be confronted. Uranium waste remains radioactive and toxic for hundreds of thousands of years.
The Public Consultation Document prepared by DIVEX on behalf of the Ministry of the Environment barely addresses the environmental risks associated with uranium mining. Instead, the researchers presume optimal working and environmental conditions.
There is no discussion whatsoever of the possibility of environmental disasters.
There is no concrete analysis of the possibility of accidental leaks or spills or the contamination of surface and groundwater. There is no analysis of the impact of such accidents or contamination.
There is also little discussion of the problems or difficulties experienced at other uranium mines in Canada or throughout the world. The only exception is Elliot Lake, which the researchers explain away by saying that the regulations have since changed.
As a result, the DIVEX report does not provide a proper risk assessment of the uranium industry.
Further, there is no real discussion in the DIVEX report of the in-perpetuity problem and how radioactive waste will be managed and contained in the long term. There is no mention whatsoever of the fact that containing this radioactive waste will require perpetual maintenance and monitoring for thousands of years, as there is no known disposal method. There is no discussion of the significant issues surrounding this type of monitoring, such as how to ensure sufficient funding and institutional support for this future burden, or how to communicate radioactive hazards across tens of thousands of years.
The fact that these environmental risks were barely addressed in the document that forms the basis for this inquiry and public consultation process is of grave concern to the Cree Nation. We take our stewardship responsibilities for the lands of Eeyou Istchee very seriously. The environmental risks posed by uranium mining – today and for thousands of years to come – must be assessed in the BAPE’s consideration of this industry.
The Cree Nation’s second major concern involves the health risks associated with uranium mining.
Exploration efforts to date indicate that a large proportion of uranium deposits are located in Eeyou Istchee. Quebec’s most advanced uranium exploration project – Strateco’s Matoush Project – is located on Cree territory, on Cree family traplines, at the crest of two major watersheds that bring water to and from our communities.
The mining and milling of these deposits will happen on our territory. The yellowcake will be transported down our roads, through our territory. The tailings will be left behind on our land. Our surface water and groundwater will bear the risk of contamination. The animals and plant life on which we rely for sustenance and nourishment drink this water. We, the Crees of Eeyou Istchee, drink this water. We are the ones who will bear the brunt of any health risks associated with contamination.
Many of these health risks were not seriously considered in the DIVEX public consultation document. Instead, concerns about heath were brushed off as minimal and manageable.
The study on health effects released recently by the Quebec Institute for Public Health does not paint the same picture. Rather, it confirms that there are many risks associated with uranium mining, including risks of cancer, and risks of toxicological and radiological contamination. It also indicates that there are major gaps in knowledge about the prevalence and incidence of certain diseases, genetic defects and the health risks associated with accidents and tailings management in the long term.
The Crees of Eeyou Istchee will bear the brunt of these health effects. We are the ones who are asked to accept the uncertainty.
The Cree Nation’s third major concern involves the issue of the lack of social acceptability of uranium mining amongst the Crees and amongst Quebecers.
The issue of social acceptability must be considered by the BAPE. The concerns and opinions of the population directly affected by uranium mining must be at the core of any decision regarding the uranium sector. Social acceptability cannot be treated as an afterthought.
The concept of social acceptability is of particular importance in Eeyou Istchee. The importance of social acceptability was recognized by then-Minister Yves-Francois Blanchet, when he refused to authorize the Matoush project, on the basis of the overwhelming absence of social acceptability for the project amongst the Crees.
The Cree Nation has been extremely vocal about our opposition to uranium mining in our territory. We are the ones who will have to assume the environmental, health and social risks associated with uranium mining. We anticipate that once Quebecers learn what we know about the effects and risks of uranium mining, they will stand with us in our opposition to uranium mining.
Source and Image: Grand Council of the Crees