The uranium industry recently held their "3rd International Conference on Uranium". While company executives and technical people engaged in expensive self-promotion, the Conference Board of Canada released a study showing that, in spite of the "uranium boom", Northern Saskatchewan remains one of the poorest regions in all of Canada.
Uranium 2010 was held in Saskatoon, where the 2nd International Conference had previously been held. It was organized, promoted and keynoted by the biggest of the industry’s multinationals – France’s Areva and Canada’s Cameco, who together own all six active uranium mines in the North and mine on many other continents. They ran the show. Seven of nine members of the organizing committee were from Cameco or Areva. These corporations were responsible for publicity, chairing, handling funds, arranging tours to mines, and even running a "short course". Another sponsor, the Metallurgy Society did the registration.
Cameco and Areva CEO’s and Presidents gave keynote addresses. They were joined by Energy and Resources Minister Bill Boyd, whose department, along with Enterprise Saskatchewan, was a symbolic sponsor of the event. Most disconcerting, the President and CEO of the nuclear regulator, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), was also a keynote speaker. So much for arm’s length relations between the industry and our public protector!
THE UDP ALL OVER AGAIN
Workshops covered the whole nuclear fuel cycle: uranium mining and milling, refining and conversion, nuclear power and nuclear wastes and fuel reprocessing. Of course it was all from an industry perspective! There were no independent researchers or critics of the industry. No dialogue with northern communities. The agenda looked a lot like the nuclear expansion plan that came from the government-appointed Uranium Development Partnership (UDP) in 2009. It was the same people from the same corporations promoting pretty much the same thing. When the UDP plan was finally brought out of the corporate board rooms into the public light, it was overwhelming rejected; eighty percent of participants opposed nuclear power plants and a nuclear waste dump in Saskatchewan. But those who run and benefit from this industry apparently can’t take "no" for an answer!
The industry has a lot of money for self-promotion. In 2006, when the value of uranium sales sky-rocketed to $600 million, the share going to the province as taxes and royalties remained flat, at only $43 million. In 2008 Cameco’s CEO got $4.5 million in compensation, even higher than British Petroleum’s (BP’s) CEO got this year.
Uranium 2010 showed that Northern Saskatchewan remains open for uranium business. But the event wasn’t really open to the public or those who espouse a sustainable economy for the North. Registration for non-members was $1,050, and even workshop speakers had to pay $900 to be able to mingle and network with the nuclear dealmakers.
NO BOOM FOR NORTHERNERS
While the nuclear industry was promoting itself, the Conference Board released a study showing that Northern Saskatchewan is the second poorest region in all Canada, just behind northeastern Manitoba. The study by the Centre for the North found the annual median income – the midpoint of income distribution, was only $13,600. Contrast this with Northern Alberta, with an income three times this, of $42,806. To put this into the perspective: it would take the median income of 330 northern Saskatchewan residents to equal that of Cameco’s CEO.
Canada’s five poorest regions are all northern, but so are three of the richest. The richest are around Fort McMurray, Alberta; Yellowknife and Fort Smith, NWT; and Fort Nelson, B.C. Fort McMurray’s wealth is primarily based on tar sand extraction; Yellowknife and Fort Smith rely on mining, energy and forestry; and Fort Nelson has natural gas and forestry. These are all hinterland extraction industry communities where thousands of southerners have resettled. Contrast this to Northern Saskatchewan, where the uranium industry brings up most workers, flies them in and out of isolated mines, and takes the mineral wealth out of the north.
But would southerners really want to relocate to northern communities downwind or downstream from accumulating radioactive tailings? In southern areas of Canada, from Nova Scotia to Ontario to B.C., there are moratoria or calls for bans on uranium exploration. The double standard which allows these radioactive mines to operate near Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan’s North is rightly called "environmental racism".
When the Blakeney NDP expanded uranium mining in the 1980s there was much hype about this being the "magic bullet" to end northern poverty. All Indigenous groups wanted a moratorium to protect land rights, but most businesses and some First Nations and Métis politicians joined the "gold fever" bandwagon. Thirty years later, after most of the high-grade ore has been removed, the destitution remains. The biggest legacy for the North will not be jobs or money but toxic, radioactive tailings that threaten the hunting, fishing and gathering that the majority of Dene, Métis and Cree peoples still depend upon. Protecting these renewable resources, not sacrificing lakes and waterways to the uranium industry, remains the path to a sustainable North.
WARNINGS WERE GIVEN
In 1993 the Joint Federal Provincial Panel (JFPP), assessing a rash of uranium mines in the Wollaston region, warned that the benefits of uranium wealth were not being distributed into the region. It also warned that cumulative ecological effects could permanently undermine the renewable economy. Their recommendation that Areva’s Midwest mine not be approved and its McClean Lake mine be postponed fell on deaf ears in the Romanow NDP government of the day.
Speaking at the Nunavut Mining Symposium in April 2009, past Chief and 22-year Councillor of the Denesuline Hatchet Lake First Nation, Ed Benoanie, said "almost all of the workers come from the south". He claimed uranium mining "hasn’t created any economic opportunities for our community. A few people from the community work there, but we have 80% unemployment." The findings of the Conference Board confirm his observations. We will have to wait and see whether the people of Nunavut heed Benoanie’s warning as they face the lure of uranium mining, as they did in the early 1990s, when it was turned down.
Previous NDP governments started referring to Saskatchewan as a ‘have province", and Premier Wall continually highlights this new image in his campaigning. While Saskatchewan’s economy has sometimes led growth in the country, the North remains among the poorest of the poor. The colonial and "racial" divide remains deep.
Little wonder that Uranium 2010 didn’t include Northern impacts on its agenda!