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Uranium's Chilling Effects

Community participation stifled as industry expands in northern Saskatchewan

by Sandra Cuffe

In northern towns like Pinehouse, critics say the uranium industry is cutting off avenues for dissent. Illustration by Rebecca Roher
In northern towns like Pinehouse, critics say the uranium industry is cutting off avenues for dissent. Illustration by Rebecca Roher

PINEHOUSE, SASKATCHEWAN—Dale Smith’s worn nylon fishing net gradually untangles as it falls into the lake. Smith stands against an endless Saskatchewan summer sky, his hands gently guiding the gillnet over the starboard bow and then pulling the float line taught while the boat slides slowly sternway through the water, motor humming quietly.

The wind picks up, and gentle waves lap against the rocks and sandy beaches of the islands scattered around Pinehouse Lake. There’s not as much fishing as there used to be, says Smith, and the traditional land-based lifestyle has been waning in the community. But fishers, hunters, trappers, berry pickers, medicine gatherers and wild rice growers still use the lakes and lands in the boreal forest in northern Saskatchewan, at the edge of the Canadian Shield.

Not only is Dale Smith a soft-spoken fisherman and wild rice grower, he is also a dedicated community activist who is taking two of the world’s largest uranium mining companies to court. Smith recently filed a lawsuit together with 38 people and organizations to fight back against a $200 million agreement that he says will effectively muzzle opposition to future uranium mines.

“What I’m seeing and experiencing now is that there’s a silencing,” Smith, a lifelong Métis resident of the northern village of Pinehouse, told The Dominion. “I don’t think people really truly understand the significance of what happened to my community.”

The uranium industry is rapidly expanding its sphere of control in northern Saskatchewan, and the impacts of its widening footprint aren’t limited to the lands and waters. Residents of affected communities are speaking out against an increasing corporate influence that is altering local governance and diminishing opportunities for critical public participation.

All of Canada’s producing uranium mines are located in Saskatchewan's Northern Administration District, a region of interconnected lakes, rivers and muskeg encompassing approximately half of Saskatchewan. Roughly 80 per cent of the 37,000 northern residents are Indigenous – primarily Dene, Cree and Métis.

In the far northwest, the effects of early uranium mining, begun in the 1950s by a federal Crown corporation with military contracts related to the production of atomic weapons, are ongoing. A July 2013 report by Saskatchewan Environmental Society Director Peter Prebble and board member Ann Coxworth highlights the serious uranium and selenium contamination in four watersheds in the area of Uranium City just north of Lake Athabasca, despite clean-up efforts. The contamination of water, plants and animals, and potential impacts on human health, continue to be of concern to residents in the north.

Canada’s uranium mining sector is poised to undergo a boom. Canadian uranium accounted for 16.7 per cent of global production in 2011, second only to Kazakhstan. In 2012, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall announced that uranium production, 10,785 tonnes in 2011, would nearly double by 2017. The Cigar Lake mine, the world’s second-highest-grade uranium project after McArthur River, will begin producing in 2014, according to uranium company Cameco. Also in 2012, Canada signed a nuclear co-operation agreement with India to permit the export of uranium, and a protocol with China to facilitate increased exports, both for nuclear power programs.

Saskatoon-based Cameco and French multinational Areva are adding new mines and infrastructure to their existing projects, creating an integrated uranium corridor spreading over 250 kilometers. Areva and Cameco both received long-awaited permits for new mines over the past 18 months. Along with the new mines come plans for long-distance uranium slurry transport, Cameco–Areva milling arrangements, tailings facility expansions and provincial funding for a road to connect the corridor.

Together with existing uranium operations, including the Key Lake mill, McArthur River mine, McLean Lake mine and mill, Eagle Point mine and Rabbit Lake mill, these new projects solidify the industrial occupation of the entire eastern edge of the Athabasca basin, a region in the Canadian Shield home to the world’s highest-grade uranium deposits. The industry’s increased territorial footprint in Treaty 10 lands has been accompanied by attempts to increase corporate influence in neighbouring villages and reserves south of the Athabasca basin.

“These people are very sneaky,” Canoe Lake First Nation elder and grassroots activist Emil Bell told The Dominion, denouncing the use of community dinners, door prizes and small grants to garner local support. “Cameco has been playing the role of Santa Claus in this last short while, handing out money.”

As if to underscore Bell’s concerns, the leadership of two communities just south of the mining region have recently taken their relationships with the uranium industry to the next level. 

The northern village of Pinehouse entered into a Collaboration Agreement with Cameco and Areva on December 12, 2012. English River First Nation (ERFN) followed suit on May 31, 2013. The deals are estimated to bring $200 million in benefits for Pinehouse and $600 million for ERFN over the first 11 and 10 years, respectively. The benefits will be paid out by Cameco and Areva, but the vast majority of each amount is to come in the form of employee wages and business contracts. Many of the negotiated contracting opportunities included in the payouts are for specific areas of work at Cameco’s proposed Millennium project, which is still in the early stages of the environmental assessment process.

In exchange for signing agreements with industry, Pinehouse and ERFN have agreed to support Cameco and Areva’s existing operations and existing authorizations, as well as—subject to consultation terms laid out in the agreements—the companies’ proposed projects, proposed authorizations and exploration projects. If either community were to decide to take a formal collective position of outright opposition to any of the above, either in court or during regulatory proceedings, they would be breaching the agreements and risking the jobs, contracts and community investment payments contained therein. Two of three lump-sum community payments from Cameco are directly tied to future corporate activities: the start of regular commercial production at the Cigar Lake mine, and the beginning of construction at the company's proposed Millennium project.

Some local authorities think the deal with uranium companies will bring positive benefits to their communities. “It allows us to expand on our strong mining culture and do it our way. We want to be accountable to ourselves,” Pinehouse mayor Mike Natomagan said of the Pinehouse agreement, according to a press release issued following the signing.

Accountability is also an issue for opponents of the agreement. The lack of transparency and consultation regarding the Pinehouse collaboration agreement is at the heart of a class action lawsuit in which Smith is a plaintiff, along with more than thirty other individuals from Pinehouse, Saskatchewan and elsewhere. In their statement of claim, filed in the Court of Queen’s Bench in June 2013 against Cameco, Areva, local officials, and the municipal, provincial and federal governments, Smith and his co-plaintiffs seek to have the collaboration agreement declared null and void.

Negotiations for the Pinehouse agreement between village and company officials and lawyers took place over two years. Residents only found out about its existence and content at a meeting in November 2012, the month before the signing. At that time, a draft summary term sheet was distributed. The draft included a commitment by the village to "make reasonable efforts to ensure Pinehouse members do not say or do anything that interferes with or delays Cameco/Areva's mining." The full text of the deal, which did not include the controversial clause, was only made available after it came into effect. Residents were left out of the process.

“No matter what you’re negotiating, come to the people. Let the people decide,” said Smith of the Pinehouse agreement. “For them to be put in a position, or put themselves in a position, to exclude the community as a whole was such a breach of the whole idea of community living that it was a devastating thing to betray that. It’s not so much the contents of the agreement. It was how it transpired.”

In the case of the ERFN agreement, the document is still confidential and has not been released to the public. Cameco claims community leaders were the ones who chose not to release the text.

“In both cases, we worked with the elected leaders and elders from each community and recognized that each political entity would decide how and when they would share information with their stakeholders,” Rob Gereghty,  Cameco's Manager of Media Relations, wrote in an email to The Dominion. “Pinehouse elected to post the final agreement on line, while English River First Nation, citing concerns about commercially-sensitive information, decided to share an executive summary with the community.”

The executive summary, though, does identify a crucial detail of the ERFN agreement—one that raised serious concerns when the document was handed out at a May 22, 2013, meeting in Patuanak, nine days before it was signed. As part of the agreement with Cameco, ERFN agreed to drop its lawsuit against the government of Saskatchewan over a claim to land located east of Cree Lake.

According to local prophecies, Cree Lake and the surrounding area is to be the place of refuge for the Denesuline of Patuanak in a coming time of dire need, when the animals are gone, the trees turn black, and the lands can no longer support the people. Cameco’s proposed Millennium mine is located on the land in question, now no longer tied up in litigation.

“Big decisions like this would generally go to a general band meeting and be ratified at a general band meeting. It would be put to the public and there would be a vote,” Candyce Paul, a member of the English River First Nation, told The Dominion. “It’s a big concern, especially because there’s a lawsuit involved, and the lands are involved, impacts are involved.”

One ERFN band councillor opposed the collaboration agreement. Michael Wolverine tried to tell people at the May 23, 2013, meeting on the La Plonge reserve why he did not think it was a good idea for the present or the future.

“[Wolverine] said he’s been attending these meetings and he has some very grave concerns about the impacts and he started to read out from a notebook that he had a list of concerns. It was more than a page long, and he got to about the second or third [point] and they jumped him, pretty much. Both the lawyers, the Cameco rep and other band councillors kind of just moved in towards him and stopped him from talking,” said Paul, who attended the meeting.

Wolverine was not permitted to proceed, and he did not attend the signing on May 31, 2013, held despite an ongoing wake for the death of a band member, in breach of community protocol.

“The impact on the community is ‘shut up and live with it.’ And that’s never good. It’s hurting people,” said Paul. “People are afraid to say anything, or discuss anything on Facebook. They’re afraid for their jobs.” She said the fear runs deep: “Others don’t speak out if they have a family member waiting for post-secondary funding or other opportunities dependent on decisions by the band administration."

To the casual observer, it might appear that there are still a number of venues for community voices to be heard. There are community committees for that purpose, but their organization and activities are largely controlled by the provincial government and industry.

“Historically, if you go back to the Cluff Lake hearings—and that goes back quite a few years now—that was the hearing which opened up all the new mines that have been coming on screen in the last 20, 30 years. At that time, the northern communities did make various recommendations and briefs and statements at that time and one of the things they were asking for, for example, were some baseline health studies, which never really happened,” Jim Penna, a founding member of the Inter-Church Uranium Committee Education Co-operative (ICUCEC), told The Dominion. “History shows that they have not, in fact, honoured the concerns that were expressed at that time.”

Beyond ignoring concerns, the industry’s shift towards silencing dissent has been an intentional one, according to Penna. “They’ve been very strong in their efforts to win over the minds and the hearts of people. And so they think that they’ve done that job now. And I think the final nail came when they were able to go into those communities and say, look, let’s have an agreement here, in a final effort to silence any opposition.”

For now, after decades of uranium mining in the north and recent attempts to stifle dissent, many have trouble envisioning alternatives. “It makes it look like it’s the only opportunity in the area, and that it will be the only opportunity in the area for years to come,” said Paul. “It has created a sense of hopelessness in the community, like, ‘this is what there is and we don’t like it, but there isn’t anything else.’ And so, with the uranium [mining], the long-term vision has got tunnel vision now, because they know it’s hurting the lands, they know it’s impacting the people, and they just don’t want to see it anymore. They don’t know what to do.”

Participants in the ongoing provincial consultations on uranium mining in Quebec, and communities in Nunavut, Labrador, Alberta and the Northwest Territories facing possible future uranium mines, may have to scratch the surface to find a critical perspective on the experience in northern Saskatchewan. But when they do, they’ll find people making a powerful stand to defend their lands and communities.

“This is not just about Pinehouse now, and that’s why I put up a resistance,” said Smith. He doubles back to check the gillnets. They’re firmly anchored in place.

Sandra Cuffe is a vagabond freelance journalist. She recently spent several in northern Saskatchewan. Sandra tweets as @Sandra_Cuffe


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