The forecast for northern Saskatchewan this week is non-stop nuclear issues. Saskatoon-based uranium mining giant Cameco, French uranium corporation Areva, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization and the grassroots community-based Committee for Future Generations are all on the road visiting communities, but they are not all on the same page.
Northern Saskatchewan, "The Heartbeat of Cameco" according to the company's website, is currently the source of all uranium produced in Canada, the world's leading supplier. While Cameco and Areva embark on the second week of their joint northern tour, residents are raising concerns about corporate tactics and mine safety.
Created by a 1988 merger of federal Crown corporation Eldorado Nuclear Limited and provincial Crown corporation Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation, Cameco has now been fully privatized for a decade. Along with its involvement further down the uranium chain with nuclear energy, the company operates several uranium mining and milling projects in northern Saskatchewan - McArthur River, Eagle Point (Rabbit Lake), Key Lake and Cigar Lake - and has others in the works. The current tour is part of Cameco's outreach to affected communities.
"The northern tour is one of many channels of communication between Cameco and people living in northern communities. We use the tour to provide information, hear comments and concerns, and update northern communities on specific initiatives that make up our five-pillar CSR strategy," Robert Gegherty, Manager of External Communications for Cameco, wrote in an email to the Media Co-op.
The five pillars of Cameco's Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) strategy are workforce development, community investment, community engagement, business development and environmental stewardship. Last year's northern tour highlighted workplace development, job opportunities and the company's skills assessment program, wrote Gegherty. "This year, the focus is on community investment," he added.
Not everyone is keen on Cameco's CSR activities. While jobs and community investment are desperately needed in northern communities, grassroots activist Emil Bell says many northern residents do not openly raise concerns about uranium mining activities because they or someone in their family works for the company or one of their many contractors or has received financial aid on some way. He sees the recent community investment funds as part of industry efforts to stifle dissent.
"Cameco has been playing the role of Santa Claus in this last short while, handing out money," Bell told the Media Co-op.
"Cameco uses the same bloody approach as the pedophiles do. You see them going into the little communities and, you know, they give, they pump out this information, which is one-sided. They tell people it's safe. And then they reward them, you know - door prize, TV. If there's kids in there, they give them ipods, ithis, ithat," said Bell.
"Very much the same way, a pedophile, once they've chosen their victims, they will wine and dine them and then, you know, try and get their trust. And once they establish, once they've groomed the victim, the family, the community, then they strike, they victimize the intended victim," he said. "That's exactly the same method that Cameco's using."
The population of northern Saskatchewan is approximately 80 per cent Dene, Cree and Métis. Bell sees uranium industry and government actions in the region as a continuation of colonial policies of assimilation and genocide, including the Indian Residential School system. In fact, government-funded residential schools and the government-owned uranium industry operated simultaneously for decades in Saskatchewan until the last school closures in the 1990s and Cameco's privatization shortly thereafter.
"I spent twelve years in residential school," Bell told the Media Co-op. "I do know what I'm talking about. It's not just I read it in a book."
Gegherty says northern residents like Bell have recourse to Cameco's local representatives to address their concerns.
"Any northerner who has a legitimate concern or question about our activities can contact one of our five community liaisons in northern Saskatchewan. I would strongly encourage this individual to do so," wrote Gegherty, in response to the Media Co-op's request for comment about the comparison between Cameco's behaviour and that of pedophiles.
But not everyone feels they can speak freely.
The Committee for Future Generations, a grassroots activist group in northwestern Saskatchewan, organized its own northern tour - the 7000 Generations Northern Tour Against Nuclear Waste. With the slogan, "Giving a Voice Back to the People," the committee has traveled from La Loche, near the western edge of the province, to Creighton on the Manitoba border over the past month. Public meetings, radio interviews, discussions with elders and other events have all been on the agenda.
The 7000 Generations tour has focused on the inclusion of communities in northern Saskatchewan in the Nuclear Waste Management Organization's site selection process for a high-level radioactive waste repository. Nonetheless, the committee has heard health and safety concerns regarding uranium mining from community residents and from past and present Cameco and other company and contract employees along the way.
Last week, on October 9, the Committee for Future Generations launched a grassroots whistle-blower hotline to allow residents and workers to have their voices heard without having to come forward publicly. Tips sent by mail, email or phone will be kept confidential and brought up with the appropriate authorities.
"We've heard firsthand from so many people in northern communities who are afraid to speak out or tired of being ignored by the very people in the provincial government who should be taking these concerns seriously," said Committee for Future Generations member Max Morin, according to the committee's press release announcing the initiative.
"We hope that the hotline will encourage more people to come forward with safety concerns, and we hope that by getting this information out in the public light that corporations and governments will finally be motivated to do the right thing and ensure our communities are safe," said Morin.
The second half of October will help illustrate how comfortable community residents and workers are bringing up concerns directly with Cameco and Areva. Their joint northern tour stopped in communities up in the Athabasca Basin during the first week of October. The two companies are set to visit communities in the central region this week and further west the following week. Activities at each location include a three-hour afternoon open house and a three-hour evening supper and information session.
The corporate northern tour resumes tomorrow in Pinehouse, followed by Wednesday in Patuanak, part of the English River First Nation. Both locations are under consideration for hosting spent fuel bundles from Canada's nuclear reactors. Representatives from Cameco and the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) may pass each other on the dirt highways between Pinehouse and Patuanak. NWMO representatives held an open house in Patuanak today and will visit Pinehouse on Wednesday.
Cameco and NWMO will also likely cross paths with the grassroots 7000 Generations tour this week. Many northern residents are not only concerned about the threat of incoming nuclear waste and the safety at current mines but also about the extent to which the uranium industry controls northern Saskatchewan.
"Cameco, as they get their footprint deeper in our communities in the north and our province, they turn around and now have control," Pinehouse resident John Smerek told the Media Co-op. "Right now they have a massive control over this province."
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist. She recently returned to the west coast after spending eight weeks in Saskatcehwan.