Uranium Territory: Inuit campaign for referendum over mine in far north
Writing for the Dominion, Warren Bernauer explores the issues surrounding Nunavut's pro-uranium stance and the grassroots effort to let the people, not the government, decide the future of uranium mining at Baker Lake.
BAKER LAKE—A conflict over a uranium mine in the far north, four decades in the making, has pitted members of a small Inuit community against their territorial government and a French company.
Inuit in the community of Baker Lake, located west of Hudson Bay in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, have raised a hue over what they call a faulty, biased process and the Government of Nunavut's uncritical support for uranium mining.
John*, an Inuk from Baker Lake who spoke with The Dominion, said the Nunavut Government’s support for uranium mining was biased.
“The new government policy with regards to uranium, I think that’s biased,” he said. “Them knowing their own people don’t really want uranium mining and the impact it would have on the people. We’ve heard for years now the environmental impact it’s going to have in our community.”
He later commented, “I think there should be a ban on uranium mining...no uranium mining in Nunavut, period.”
Bill*, also an Inuk from Baker Lake, said that he was unsure whether or not the new policy truly reflects the opinions of Nunavummiut (“the people of Nunavut”).
“I think they should have held a [public] vote on the issue.”
Outrage over the government’s new policy has been expressed by Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit (Makita), (“The People of Nunavut Can Rise Up”), the region’s only environmental NGO, which called the process to develop the policy “biased” and “flawed.” High on the list of Makita’s complaints is the fact that the government relied on consultants with close ties to the uranium mining industry to develop its uranium policy.
Makita was formed in 2009 by residents of Baker Lake and Iqaluit, out of frustration over barriers to public participation in decision-making. Makita’s objectives include promoting public participation in decisions related to uranium development, promoting accountability and transparency in the territory’s governing institutions and promoting public awareness of the impacts of uranium mining.
Makita was the driving force that initiated the Nunavut government’s development of a new policy. In 2010, the group demanded that Nunavut hold a public inquiry into uranium mining, citing concerns that “a uranium industry in Nunavut would pose serious risks to the environment, to public health and safety and to Inuit traditions and practices.”
Instead, the government held a “public forum,” which involved hiring consultants to undertake research on uranium mining and a series of public consultation meetings. The outcome was the June 6, 2012 release of a policy providing conditional support for uranium mining. It differed little from a policy the government issued in 2007.
At the centre of the uranium debate in Nunavut is a proposed mine by AREVA Resources Canada Inc, the Canadian subsidiary of the French, mostly state-owned owned multinational corporation AREVA. Located 80 kilometres west of Baker Lake, the proposed “Kiggavik” project is only the latest of uranium proposals.
The struggle against uranium mining dates back to the 1970s. At that time, Inuit in Baker Lake unsuccessfully initiated legal challenges against uranium exploration near their community. In the late 1980s, Inuit successfully opposed a proposal by German company Urangesellschaft to mine the same Kiggavik uranium ore body that AREVA plans to exploit. In a local plebiscite in 1990, over 90 per cent of the residents of Baker Lake rejected Urangesellschaft’s proposal.
At the time, all major Inuit organizations opposed Urangesellschaft’s proposal.
The rights to the Kiggavik ore body were eventually acquired by AREVA, which now wants to develop a mine with four open pits and an underground component, a milling operation, a winter access road and potentially an all-season access road. The Nunavut Impact Review Board is currently conducting an environmental review of the Kiggavik proposal.
The community of Baker Lake is divided over AREVA’s proposal, with Inuit expressing a wide range of perspectives on the matter. Inuit Elder Margaret Niviatsiaq, a member of AREVA’s community committee and strong supporter of the Kiggavik mine, said that she supports the proposal due to hopes that it will provide her grandchildren with employment. “We have to think of the next generation. Where are they going to work? How are they going to survive? We have to think about our children.”
However, some Inuit in the community remain highly critical or outright opposed to uranium mining.
Janet* expressed serious concerns with AREVA’s proposal. “[I’m concerned with] how it’s going to affect the environment, the wildlife,” she said. “Even though they say it’s going to be safe, accidents happen all over the world and if anything happens here, especially with our drinking water...I have many concerns.”
She was also suspicious of the industry’s promises of prosperity and economic development. “I always say, the local people are going to get crumbs while someone gets the steak.”
Paul*, a hunter from Baker Lake, was worried that the Kiggavik mine might disturb caribou. “That area where they want to build the mine is along the migration route of three caribou herds.”
He was also concerned that opening the Kiggavik mine might lead to other uranium mines opening in the area. “The problem with uranium is we have so much of it around here. Once they open up one mine, how many others will follow?”
Lucy*, a young Inuk woman, formerly of Baker Lake, was concerned about the colonial implications of developing the economy of her home community by doing business with multi-national mining corporations.
"Relying on mining companies to come in and employ Inuit is still a reliance on ‘outside help’. It does not empower Inuit to become owners and producers of their production. It not only reduces Inuit to be trained just enough to ensure that...a specific sector succeeds in the north...it [also] keeps Inuit and non-Inuit living in the north in a state of dependency. It's backward. It's not progress."
Some who were critical of uranium mining also felt that their concerns and opinions were being suppressed. Janet said that some people in town are afraid to speak out, because they are “intimidated by other people” or “worried that they will lose their jobs”.
Paul felt that his views were being suppressed because his influence was small compared to that of the mining industry. “They [the mining industry] have all sorts of consultants and lawyers and money,” he said. “Those of us who are opposed, when you compare it, we basically have nothing.”
Until recently, there were a number of political barriers to uranium mining in Nunavut. Following the settlement of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in 1993, several institutions issued policies that either forbade uranium mining or provided the public with the right to refuse uranium mining. Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated (an Inuit organization that attained mineral rights to the Kiggavik ore body as part of the Nunavut land claim) initially maintained a policy that forbade mining for uranium on lands to which it held title. The 2000 Keewatin Region Land Use Plan contained a section that stated, “Any future proposal to mine uranium must be approved by the people of the region.”
However, these political barriers were quickly overcome with, some suggest, no meaningful public participation. In 2007 Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated reversed its stance on uranium mining and adopted a policy that gave conditional support for uranium mining.
The same year, the Government of Nunavut issued a similar policy when then Baker Lake MLA David Simailak tabled six “guiding principles” on uranium mining in the Legislative Assembly.
In 2008, the Nunavut Planning Commission ruled that “the people of the region” approved uranium mining, based on resolutions of support from various hamlet councils in the Kivalliq.
In a 2010 media release, Makita condemned these policy changes, arguing that they were made “without involving [Inuit] in the decision-making process” and “without regard for the democratic standard set in Baker Lake by a public plebiscite.” Makita further argued that these policies left the question of uranium mining up to environmental reviews, which would ultimately result in “bureaucrats in Nunavut and Ottawa decid[ing] whether or not [uranium mining] is in [Nunavut’s] public interest.”
Accordingly, Makita demanded that the Government of Nunavut hold a public inquiry “on whether or not to open Nunavut to uranium mining.” The group argued that a public inquiry is more “transparent, flexible and democratic than a regulatory process is,” and that the government needed to seriously assess whether or not Nunavut’s institutions had the ability to properly regulate uranium mining.
Petitions demanding a public inquiry, initiated by Makita, were tabled in the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut in June, 2010.
In August, the government responded by announcing that, instead of a public inquiry, it would hold a “public forum” on uranium mining to help the Government of Nunavut develop a more comprehensive uranium policy.
Makita responded with heavy criticism to the decision to hold a public forum instead of a public inquiry. In a press release, Makita argued that “the proposed process is window dressing—public meetings without a mandate for research and reporting, and without clear standards for transparency or process, will be a waste of time and money.”
During question period in the Legislative Assembly in October, 2010, Premiere Aariak defended the government’s choice of a public inquiry, stating that the government “concluded that the public would be fully consulted with greater participation through a public forum.”
The public forum was held in 2011. Golder Associates—the same consulting firm hired by AREVA to conduct feasibility studies and write sections of their impact assessment for the Kiggavik mine—was hired by the Nunavut government to conduct research into uranium mining. The outcome of this research was harshly criticized by Mining Watch Canada, an Ottawa-based NGO that had been invited by Makita to participate in the consultation meetings held during the public forum.
Jamie Kneen of Mining Watch slammed the Nunavut government’s decision to have its research conducted by Golder Associates. “Golder should not be expected to produce a document on its own that could put its primary clients (the mining industry) in a bad light,” he writes in the report A Flawed Foundation.
Kneen further charged that the information provided by Golder is “biased, inaccurate and incomplete,” that it “misrepresent[s] the nature of environmental regulation and health protection” and that it “presents assumptions and theories as facts.”
Representatives from the Government of Nunavut were not available for immediate comment on their choice of Golder Associates to conduct research for the public forums.
Consultation meetings were held in Baker Lake, Iqaluit and Cambridge Bay in spring, 2011. Comments were also accepted by internet and telephone submission. According to a report by Brubacher Development Strategies Incorporated, local residents from communities throughout the territory asked many questions and voiced a variety of opinions on the possibility of uranium mining in Nunavut.
While some residents spoke about the potential employment uranium mining could bring to Nunavut, others voiced concerns about the potential impacts of uranium mining on the environment. Major concerns included the potential for mine roads to impact caribou migrations, the possibility of contamination of wildlife and water and potential impacts on human health. Many of these concerns were related to the possibility that impacts on wildlife might negatively affect Inuit hunting and fishing. Some indicated that they had moral objections to mining activity in their territory that might support the creation of nuclear weapons. Some residents expressed frustration that the majority of the panel the government commissioned for the consultation meetings was supportive of uranium mining, which they felt ensured that discussions during the consultation meetings were also biased.
On June 6, 2012, the Nunavut government released the results of the consultation meetings and a “new” policy statement on uranium mining.
Aside from some minor changes, the new policy statement is essentially the same as the original guiding principles issued in 2007, and indicates support for uranium mining subject to five conditions. Included in these conditions was an assurance that “uranium mined in Nunavut shall be used only for peaceful and environmentally responsible purposes,” that the people of Nunavut “must be the major beneficiaries” of uranium mining and that uranium mining must have the support of the people of Nunavut “with particular emphasis on communities close to uranium development.” The policy also stipulated that environmental standards must be “assured” and that the health and safety of workers “shall be protected to national standards.”
Makita criticized both the policy and the process by which it was developed. In a press release, Makita again criticized the government’s choice to have Golder Associates help develop the uranium policy. Chair Sandra Inutiq called the consultation process “clearly not an ‘objective’ policy review” and “biased from the outset.” She further argued that “the Nunavut government’s ‘public forums’ were a way to deflect Makita’s call for a public inquiry,” according to the June 8 press release. Due to what the organization considers to have been a “flawed process” with an outcome that supports uranium development, Makita reiterated its position that Nunavut’s institutions are “incapable of protecting the public interest in matters of uranium.”
In an e-mail to The Dominion, Makita member Jack Hicks took issue with the government policy’s assertion that uranium from Nunavut would only be used for “peaceful and environmentally responsible purposes.”
“We know where and how uranium from Nunavut could end up in nuclear weapons. Almost everyone I've ever spoken with—including people who are in favour of opening the territory to uranium mining—knows perfectly well that the [Government of Nunavut] and [Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc.] have zero control over how uranium will be used if it leaves the territory.”
“And given that the world has not found a way to safely store the highly radioactive waste from nuclear power plants, despite having spent countless billions of dollars trying, the idea that even non-military use of nuclear energy can be called 'environmentally responsible' is absurd,” Hicks said.
“What is tragically fascinating is that in a single generation the Inuit leadership has shifted from holding principled anti-nuclear positions (for example the Inuit Circumpolar Conference’s 1983 Resolution on a Nuclear Free Zone in the Arctic) to repeating the 'peaceful and environmentally responsible' lies of the politicians of the dominant society.”
With regard to the condition that the uranium industry must have the support of communities close to uranium development, Hicks felt that only a plebiscite could be used to determine community support.
“This should take the form of a public vote, such as the one that was held in Baker Lake in 1990. Nothing less than a free and democratic vote is acceptable. And if a majority vote in favour of the Kiggavik proposal, so be it.”
On the question of a plebiscite, Inuit from both sides of the issue agreed with Hicks.
Margaret Niviatsiaq, who strongly supported the Kiggavik mine, told The Dominion, “There should be [a] vote...if there’s no vote there will be a lot of conflict between the community and the mine.”
Janet, who was very critical of AREVA’s proposal but stopped short of expressing opposition, said that there should be a vote “where people are not intimidated and they can vote freely.”
“Looking at the history of proposed uranium in Baker Lake, I still feel that there are a lot of people against it.”
*Due to the controversial nature of AREVA’s proposal, many people spoke under the condition of anonymity. In these cases, pseudonyms have been used.
Warren Bernauer is a graduate student at York University.