Environmental panel hearings set to begin hearings on uranium mining and exploration

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It was an announcement everyone had been expecting for nearly a year. On March 3, Quebec’s Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment, Wildlife and Parks, Yves-François Blanchet, confirmed that the Bureau d’audiences publiques sur l’environnement (BAPE) had been given the mandate to explore the impact of uranium exploration and extraction in Quebec via a series of public hearings across the province.

In a rare moment of agreement, both the Grand Council of the Crees and Strateco Resources Inc., whose Matoush uranium project hangs in the balance, welcomed the announcement.

In a Grand Council press release, Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come called the BAPE “a crucial first step in an important process…. A broad, independent and rigorous study of the uranium industry in Quebec is urgently required. We intend to participate fully in the BAPE process, to ensure that it meets these high standards. We are confident that when Quebecers learn and consider the true facts about uranium mining and uranium waste, they will join us in our permanent moratorium stand.”

The next day, a Strateco release also supported the BAPE, saying the company, “intends to be very active throughout the process, and hopes that the independent study, conducted by Université Laval researchers on the state of the art of exploration and uranium mining in Quebec and related impacts and mitigation measures, will lay out rational, scientific facts and set the ground for stakeholder discussion.”

Strateco went on to suggest that opposition by Mistissini and the Grand Council to uranium development in its traditional territory was due to an “entrenched” position that was contrary to facts. The Grand Council, in contrast, underlined that “the Cree Nation’s opposition to [uranium exploration, mining, milling and waste emplacement in Eeyou Istchee] is based on the serious risks uranium poses to the environment and to human health. Uranium exploration and mining places a burden on future generations that the Cree Nation is not prepared to assume.”

“We took the position that BAPE doesn’t have any jurisdiction in the Cree territory, unless the Crees sign an agreement with BAPE,” explained Grand Council Executive Director Bill Namagoose. “And that agreement has now been signed between the Grand Council of the Crees/Cree Nation government and the Quebec government. So we will be part of, but separate and distinct from, the BAPE process, and Cree rights will be respected.”

As a result of the agreement between the Grand Council and BAPE, Namagoose said, BAPE will comply with Sections 22 and 23 of the James Bay Northern Quebec Agreement (JBNQA), which guarantees Crees the right to protect JBNQA territory from development they consider to be environmentally and socially unacceptable.

Uranium is specifically a Cree issue, Namagoose pointed out, because no other area of the province has a serious uranium exploration or mining site.

“Most of the uranium exploration and mining takes place in the Eeyou Istchee,” Namagoose said. “So it’s outside of BAPE’s jurisdiction.” He adds, however, that because of the agreement between the Grand Council and BAPE, the process is being allowed to consider uranium mining in Eeyou Istchee – namely the Matoush project in the Otish Mountains. Nonetheless, BAPE’s power remains limited.

“If BAPE says that it’s okay to proceed with mining uranium, and there’s a uranium mine that’s scheduled to open in Cree territory, it would still be subject to Section 22 of JBNQA,” explained Namagoose. “If they don’t have social acceptability, they cannot proceed. This is what Strateco is now contesting. They have the right to contest, but this is a treaty provision that says that if you don’t get a permit, you should go away.”

BAPE does not deal with specific projects on an issue-to-issue basis. Rather, it sets out policy orientation, and its hearings about uranium will determine whether or not uranium exploration and mining will be generally acceptable in the province of Quebec.

“The Crees have a no-uranium-mining position in our territory. It’s not a government decree, it’s a decision of the Cree Nation,” Namagoose said. “If they say uranium mining can go ahead, we will still oppose it. We don’t care what the BAPE review says. We’ll still have Section 22.”

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