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Conflict of Interest in Northern Saskatchewan

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On my recent trip to the Keepers of the Water gathering at Wollaston Lake I witnessed the intricacies of northern uranium politics. On June 29th the Inuit group Nunavummiut Makitagunarninit had called for a public inquiry on the proposed Kiggavik uranium mine in Nunavut. It opposed leaving the decision solely to the regulatory process, arguing a public inquiry “is more transparent, flexible and democratic”. It added, “Nunavut’s organizations have already shown themselves incapable of protecting the public interest” and “land claims institutions are not equipped to deal with the complex long-term cumulative effects of a nascent uranium industry in the territory.”

They were showing foresight for, in Saskatchewan, the incremental spread of the uranium industry has led to the Wollaston region being inundated with mines and toxic tailings. And though a 1993 federal-provincial inquiry had raised the alarm about cumulative effects, these continue to be ignored as Cameco and Areva forge ahead while the profitability of uranium remains high.

You might expect that all Saskatchewan Aboriginal leaders would support this Inuit call for the duty to consult. However, in the August 16th Nunatsiaq News, Prince Albert Grand Council (PAGC) Vice Chief Don Deranger claimed the Inuit group was giving “a highly misleading picture of the relation of the uranium mining industry in Northern Saskatchewan with local stakeholders.” Presenting himself “as a First Nations leader from northern Saskatchewan”, but later identifying himself as a Board member of Cameco, he said the uranium industry has earned its public support “based on how the companies protect the environment and support local communities.”

CAMECO ISN’T DENE PERSPECTIVE

The article was headlined “A Saskatchewan Dene Perspective on uranium” but Deranger was writing as a Cameco Board member. He refers to “our industry”. When he affirms the industry “does many things to make sure that northern people benefit most from the development of Saskatchewan uranium” he uses the corporate “We”, as in “We employ aboriginal elders”, “We fund charitable initiatives”, etc.

Many of his claims don’t withstand factual examination. That “northern people benefit most” from uranium mining is absurd; recent research shows northern Saskatchewan remains among the poorest regions in Canada in spite of the “uranium boom”. That Cameco’s McArthur River mine occupies “less than two square kilometers” doesn’t mean “the footprint of uranium mining is small”. The footprint of the whole nuclear fuel cycle, including the 34 nuclear plants that Deranger says can be fueled by one year’s uranium from McArthur, must all be considered. This includes the enormous amounts of water contaminated by these reactors and their steady buildup of nuclear wastes.

But Cameco officials who likely helped draft Deranger’s letter are not independent energy impact analysts; they are corporate PR people. And this blurring of the lines between Aboriginal and corporate voices is clearly what the uranium industry wants. With one foot in the PAGC, overseeing Athabasca land-use planning, Deranger is an ideal person to be on Cameco’s Board. Aboriginal voices like Deranger and past PAGC Grand Chief, and now a Cameco Vice President, Gary Merasty, can be effective in countering aboriginal opposition to uranium mining; they are helping spread the industry’s influence into Nunavut and Northern Quebec.

WHAT’S “LEARNING TOGETHER?”

Some may feel this close relationship with the uranium industry will somehow work to benefit aboriginal communities. But disinformation can never lay the ground for pursuing justice. And disinformation is what we are getting. Deranger is also a key promoter of “Learning Together”, “an aboriginal approach to Mining relationships” which held its 5th conference this past April. Its mission is unambiguous: “We believe in the positive economic impact exploration and mining development can bring to aboriginal communities…” It has eagle, moose, fox, beaver and polar bear corporate sponsors; Cameco is a wolf sponsor.

At the Canadian Aboriginal Mining Association (CAMA) Conference in Saskatoon last November, Deranger was treated as a reliable resource person for the Mistissini First Nations from northern Quebec who had concerns about the impact of uranium exploration on their traditional trapping area. According to the Learning Together site, Deranger, who prior to going on Cameco’s Board had worked in the industry “for nearly 30 years”, told them unabashedly “uranium is one of the safest minerals to be mined in Canada”. The Quebec Cree also met with Cameco VP Gary Merasty who “organized a meeting with a team of managers and mine Elders.”

This is no way to assess the risks and benefits of uranium mining. But it is a way to create a façade of Aboriginal self-determination. Aboriginal people with past or present roles as Grand Chief or Vice Chief clearly carry weight when they endorse corporate expansion. Cameco couldn’t ask for a better way to influence aboriginal communities who live close to profitable uranium ore finds. But there is nothing scientific about this approach. Nor is there meant to be! Near the end of the article about CAMA the author says “In each of our meetings we asked every person we met if they knew anyone who had been sick from uranium mining and not a single person was able to recall anyone.” That’s no way to collect “evidence”.

It must be very difficult for those having deference for their political leaders, as one way to maintain cultural identity, to witness this corporate assimilation. Apologists of the uranium industry typically adopt an “amoral” stance that downplays end-uses. Uranium has only two uses: for building nuclear weapons, including depleted uranium (DU) weapons, and for fueling nuclear plants, which create long-lived radioactive wastes and pose a threat from ongoing radioactive releases and nuclear accidents. Renewable energy can be created without these risks of proliferation and radioactive contamination.

CONFLICT OF INTEREST UNACCEPTABLE

These conflicts of interest are not only of concern to aboriginal communities. Deranger’s membership on the Keepers of the Water board that organized the Wollaston gathering has been contentious. Some wanted him to resign while others wanted to wait and see if there might be a good outcome from his wearing so many hats. But at some point you need to look at what people are doing, not at what they say they are doing.

At first I too was confused and I even thought there might be two Don Derangers. Speaking at Wollaston as PAGC Vice Chief, Deranger mentioned that the Athabasca Dene were calling for a judicial review of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) allowing Areva’s Midwest project to be changed to a giant open pit mine without any aboriginal approval. This was the same CNSC that Deranger had put his complete trust in when he criticized the Inuit’s call for a public inquiry. Deranger didn’t mention that the original Midwest underground proposal hadn’t gone through any “duty to consult”, nor that the 1993 federal-provincial review had recommended against this mine due to cumulative effects in the Wollaston region. Nor that in 1996 past PAGC Vice Chief John Dantouze resigned in protest over this panels’ mishandling of the review of several mines proposed by both Cameco and Areva.

No mention either that, in 2003, in the face of overall opposition from the community of Wollaston Lake and without any environmental review, Cameco (on whose board Deranger sits) breached a dike separating the Collins Bay uranium pit from Wollaston Lake. Deranger mentions the problem with an Areva mine without providing a full context and totally sidesteps problems with the nearby Cameco mine. But what did I expect; I was witnessing political “spin.”

At the end of August the Nunavut government announced it would not hold a public inquiry and ensure “free, prior and informed consent” on uranium mining, and it’s hard to imagine that Deranger’s high-profile letter didn’t play some role in this. Next time I’ll discuss why northern communities need some control of environmental monitoring.

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