'Almost all the workers come from the south.'
Uranium boom brought few benefits to Dene
Ed Benoanie of Saskatchewan's Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation, doesn't mince words in his assessment of what uranium mining has meant for economic development in his community – very little.
There are five uranium mines in the band's traditional territory, with over 3,000 jobs, he told Nunatsiaq News, "and almost all the workers come from the south."
Benoanie has been a band councillor for 22 years, including a stint as chief, and now holds the economic development portfolio for the community.
There has been mining in the area for about 50 years, he said, "and it hasn't created any economic opportunities for our community. A few people from the community work there, but we have 80 per cent unemployment."
Uranium was the golden boy at the recent Nunavut Mining Symposium, with corporate giants Areva Resources and Cameco hailed for their self-proclaimed commitment to both environmental protection and community development.
Areva, owned largely by the French government, and Cameco, with major investment from the Saskatchewan government, are the major players in both the well-developed Saskatchewan uranium industry, and in potential Nunavut developments.
The radioactive metal is a good investment, with nowhere to go but up, Patricia Mohr, a vice-president responsible for commodity market research at Scotiabank, said at the mining symposium.
And Nunavut's Thelon basin, west of Baker Lake, may hold one of the richest uranium deposits in the world, on par with northern Saskatchewan's Athabasca basin, Charles Jefferson of the Geological Survey of Canada, told the gathering.
But in the race to partner up with mining corporations to bring promised – and much-needed – jobs, money and infrastructure to Nunavut, the territory would do well to consider the experience of aboriginal groups in other jurisdictions, including northern Saskatchewan.
Benoanie said there has not been much real conversation between the mining companies and the community. "We do approach them every now and then. And they come back with little handouts every now and then – to keep you quiet."
Of course, uranium mining in northern Saskatchewan developed over a generation ago and in a very different regulatory regime.
"It's a different climate," Mining Watch's Jamie Kneen said.
The Nunavut land claims agreement offers many more protections and controls to the people of Nunavut than were available to the Denesuline at Hatchet Lake.
But even in other areas where modern land claims are in place, he said, it's still "pretty much a one-way street" that favours the mining company.
At Voisey's Bay in Labrador, and at Raglan's Xstrata mine in Nunavik, the aboriginal groups "had agreements set up, but they didn't find they were able to take advantage of them."
"At Raglan, even after 15 to 18 years, there are still not as many Inuit working there as there should be. It comes back to capacity – and to political will. If the government is too eager for the mine, it won't drive a hard bargain."
In non-uranium situations, Kneen suggested decision makers need to promote serious, informed discussion within the affected communities, and then decide together exactly what it is they want to get out of the development.
Some mining company will still be interested, he said. The ore deposit is not going to go away, and the demand for the metal is, in the long run, probably going to go up.
Kneen's concerns were, perhaps surprisingly, echoed at the mining symposium by Baker Lake mayor David Aksawnee. He said the partnerships he was hoping will prepare residents for mine jobs still haven't materialized.
Aksawnee said Baker Lake asked the Government of Nunavut, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada and the Kivalliq Inuit Association to help with education and training starting in 2006 when the Meadowbank gold project, 70 km north of the community, went through the regulatory regime.
"We got little funding support," he said, adding he still feels the community has good relations with the mining company, Agnico-Eagle.
Aksawnee's advice: "Don't rely on anyone else."
And when it comes to uranium in particular, Kneen's advice is even more succinct: "It's a bad idea."
"Uranium mining is an environmental and health liability for humans and wildlife alike," he said.
Uranium is being promoted in the face of growing concerns about global climate change as "clean energy" because it doesn't produce greenhouse gases.
But there are serious issues about radioactivity released during the mining process, and about how to safely store nuclear waste that can remain "hot" for thousands of years.
In the uranium mining process, he explained, "all the radioactivity that was bound in the bedrock is now left in a powdery sludge on the surface. If it is not contained – forever – it can contaminate a lot of people, animals and fish."
He said the containment and management of millions of tonnes of radioactive uranium mine tailings is a very large experiment that is leaving a liability for future generations.
"According to computer models, it looks like it works," he said. "But we won't know for decades."
The same applies to the handling of water that flows through mining regions. Right now, Kneen said, you can still drink the water right out of Wollaston Lake, even though both Areva and Cameco are operating five mines around it.
"What's coming out of the mine sites right now, is controlled." But no one knows what will happen when they stop treating the water – "and the engineering models only commit to treating it for 75 years," Kneen said.