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Cree Nation reaffirms its opposition to uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee

BY Patrick Quinn Jun 19, 2021

The Cree Nation has once again affirmed its firm opposition to uranium development within Eeyou Istchee. While this position would seem self-evident by now, the resolution passed on May 26 responded to an announcement that the Matoush Uranium Project had been acquired by junior mining company International Consolidated Uranium.

“The social acceptability of proposed development projects in Eeyou Istchee has been recognized as a fundamental aspect of the strong and successful nation-to-nation relationship between the Cree Nation and Quebec,” said Grand Chief Abel Bosum. “The Cree Nation is committed to protecting our environment and our way of life from the unacceptable risks that uranium mining presents, now and for future generations. Our position on this important issue has not and will not change.”

The mine proposal, located on the Matoush family’s traditional hunting grounds 210 km northeast of Mistissini, had previously been pursued by Strateco Resources. The company’s exploration in the area began in 2006 but stopped abruptly in 2013 when the Quebec government refused its request to build an active mine, citing a lack of Cree “social acceptability” as one of the key factors in its decision.

Strateco sued the government in 2014 to recover its loss on investment, raising the demand for damages to $200 million when it appealed to the Quebec Superior Court in 2017. Last October, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to consider its appeal, essentially ruling that social acceptability is the law of the land.

Following the decision, Cree Nation Government executive director Bill Namagoose told reporters that Strateco’s “assets are totally worthless.” Regardless, Vancouver-based International Consolidated Uranium announced it had purchased the “high grade, advanced stage” Matoush Project in early May.

“We look forward to bringing a fresh perspective to development of the project with a focus on engagement with the local Indigenous stakeholders before undertaking any project level activity,” stated CEO Philip Williams. “We recognize that uranium mining can be a lightning rod issue and, as such, it is incumbent on us to garner social acceptance before attempting to advance a project.”

Williams argued that uranium mining in Canada is strictly regulated by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) and studies show no significant impacts to the health of people living near these mines. He did not respond to a request for an interview.

The CNSC granted an exploration licence to Strateco in 2012 and vigorously opposed the Quebec environmental commission’s 2015 report supporting a provincial moratorium on uranium mining because of uncertainty around health and environmental risks.    

Uranium’s risk to water contamination prompted over 20 physicians in Sept-Îles to threaten to leave the community in 2009 if a mine was to open upstream. The potential damage such a project could cause to Mistissini’s land and waters inspired Justice Debassige to launch a petition in early 2012 that soon catalyzed a movement.

The then-17-year-old and two classmates collected over 200 signatures in early 2012, drawing the attention of Mistissini’s Youth Chief and Band Council, who declared a uranium moratorium in the territory following two days of hearings with the company. As the court battles began, anti-uranium activism surged in both Cree and environmental organizations, culminating in a group of Cree youth marching from Mistissini to Montreal in late 2014.

“On the day of the walk, I put on my shoes for what I thought would be a 5-km walk, standing in solidarity,” recalled Joshua Iserhoff, who was then chair of the Cree Nation Youth Council. “They were asking people to lead the walk but couldn’t find anyone, so I said okay. My 5 km turned into 850 km. But what an interesting and rewarding time that was.”

Enduring often wintry conditions as they walked an average of a marathon each day over three weeks, about 20 Cree youth arrived in Montreal in time for the last public hearing on uranium exploration. Iserhoff was one of seven protesters who trekked the entire journey, meeting with politicians and community members along the way.

“We went through four seasons,” Iserhoff told the Nation. “I’ve seen a lot of toenails come off, had countless blisters and went through two [pairs of] shoes. It was tough but when you do this for a reason, with heart, it’s a journey. Every town was packed – we had a lot of support.”

Iserhoff said he’ll never forget the generous receptions and gifts from Indigenous communities who shared their love of the land. While he was motivated by his friends’ love of traditional activities and the devastating impact a uranium could have, it was a hunting expedition with his father Matthew that inspired a deeper intention to his experience.

“We caught a bear, my first bear,” he recalled. “I remember laying the spruce boughs for the bear to be gutted and thinking, ‘Okay Creator, what’s my intention for this?’ I had a deep awakening when I remembered how the bear’s coat was naturally so silky, beautiful and thick. That was truly the defining moment for me, when I thought about how uranium could affect this beautiful animal.”

Since the internationally recognized march, Debassige has won a Nuclear-Free Future Award and Iserhoff occasionally contributes messages to anti-uranium organizations on behalf of Mistissini youth. It’s a testament to the profound Cree connection to the land, continuing a tradition of grand statements like the famed 1990 Odeyak expedition to New York City to protest the Great Whale hydroelectric project.

“Every generation has a time to fight,” Iserhoff asserted. “The greatest leaders taught us how to fight amicably and peacefully. This is how we’re known – we walk. Instead of warring, a peaceful walk achieves many great things.”

The battle against the Matoush Project has always been about more than uranium. It’s demonstrated that Indigenous communities have the power to stop resource projects in their tracks and that Crees must be participants regarding any development in Eeyou Istchee.

“When Crees say that something is not accepted, that statement is heard loud and clear,” said Deputy Grand Chief Mandy Gull. “Maybe this company is not very familiar with the playing field, but I think they’ll learn some things when they come to Eeyou Istchee. We really stick together as a Nation and one of our biggest successes in the past decade was our fight against uranium.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.