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The Indigenous fight to stop uranium mining in Canada’s North

New book documents vital struggles in the remote corners of our country


The cover image for I Will Live for Both of Us, featuring Joan Scottie. Photo courtesy University of Manitoba Press.

I Will Live for Both of Us by Joan Scottie, Warren Bernauer and Jack Hicks, is a remarkable text: in part an autobiography of Scottie, in part the story of Inuit resistance to uranium mining in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut, and in part an indictment of the post-land claims Inuit organizations. The book deserves attention. At the outset I should note that I was a former graduate advisor (Master’s level) and now friend of Bernauer, and have sustained a decades-long friendship with Hicks. I have not met Scottie to my knowledge (I have spent time in her home community of Baker Lake). I am also an author in the remarkable University of Manitoba Press series entitled “Contemporary Studies on the North,” compiled by Chris Trott, to which this book is an addition, a collection that is fast growing into essential reading for those with any interest in the mid and far northern regions of Canada. While no doubt these connections inflect my assessment, the circle of northern social science oriented scholars is small enough that it would be irresponsible to refuse a review request, and I believe I can demonstrate my assessments.

In many ways the first chapter, “Growing Up on the Land,” is the most compelling and comes closest to reflecting Scottie’s ‘voice.’ Her father stayed out on the land much longer than most families. He drew together a confusing proliferation of marriage partners (four) and the children they brought or had with him. He was also one of those who did not seem in ‘awe’ of the Qallunaat (white) outsiders, and was more prepared to talk back or resist the edicts of on-the-ground government officials. There can be no doubt that he passed this spirit of defiance on to many of his children, including Joan. While the book is not an autobiography or auto-ethnography, it does use Scottie’s life as a frame upon which the overall story hangs, though most of what we hear is contained in the first two chapters. Other aspects of her life—travel to the south, adult relationships, formal education—are given short shrift or none at all, though the second chapter does focus on her early life in the community of Baker Lake. But, fair enough, the focus of the book is on resistance to uranium mining and there is a lot of ground to cover in order to properly tell that story. As in Saqiyuk, where the first (grandmother’s) story is so powerful it overwhelms the rest of the text, this is a life story from one of those who moved from the land to the community and joins a growing list of rich life history narratives produced by Inuit of that generation (many in the “Life Stories of Leaders” series produced by Nunavut Arctic College). In that alone it makes for engrossing reading.

That said, the remaining six chapters offer a lot of compelling material, including four on the major uranium projects that had been proposed for the region and the struggles to oppose them, one on the gold mine that was approved and built and the subsidiary projects that followed it, and one that deals with caribou protection in the region. A major uranium find to the west of Baker Lake, at a place called Kiggavik, led to a proposed mine in the late 1980s to be developed by a German based company called Urangesellschaft. A Baker Lake Concerned Citizens Committee, which Scottie helped start, became the main vehicle opposed to the project. They were able to stop the project in part because of the heavy-handed approach of the company and because they were able to get many of the involved parties to accept a local vote, which in the end was 90 percent opposed. The broader Inuit leadership also tended to support the local community in this effort.

Baker Lake, 1995. Photo by Ansgar Walk/Wikimedia Commons.

The second proposal, more than a decade later, by a French based company called Areva, became a more complicated struggle as the company hired local Inuit to work as liaisons, offered elders free trips by helicopter to homeland areas many had not been able to visit for decades, and took more of a ‘soft power’ approach to the community, which initially paid dividends in dividing opposition and even generating some support. Most tellingly, the post-land claims era made many of the Inuit political organizations holders of capital pools, relying on Qallunaat advisors whose concern with investment returns made a mockery of earlier commitments to the value of Inuit life ways. An organization called Makita (short for Nunavummiut Makitagunarninnit, the people of Nunavut can rise up) became the focal point for resistance efforts. In contrast, the “corporate Inuit organizations” behaved in sometimes underhanded ways, pretending for example that municipal council votes in favour of allowing work on the proposal for a uranium mine to proceed counted as local support for the project itself and rendered a second plebiscite unnecessary. Broader circumstances had changed as well: the project was presented as part of the solution to the global warming crises, and as a way Inuit could contribute to what some argue is a viable alternative energy source. In the end, because the price of uranium had gone down, making the mine economically unfeasible, Areva instead asked for approval of a project with no clear start-up date in its final submissions. The Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB) recommended not approving it for that reason.

One of the most telling passages, in my view, relates to what Scottie says about the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit organizations that emerged in the post-land claim era:

After we signed the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement in 1993, I expected there would be a bigger focus on Inuit pitqussit [Inuit rules] regarding the land and wildlife. I thought the Government of Nunavut (GN) and the Inuit representative organizations would push for stronger protections for caribou habitat than the federal Caribou Protection Measures. I was seriously mistaken. In many cases, the GN and Inuit organizations have sided with the mining industry and have stopped our attempts to protect important caribou habitat.

It appears that the assumption that giving Inuit greater control and resources would lead to a stronger environmental justice ethos grounding policy and practice was misguided. The institutional linkages, and the associated promotion of the capacity to think in institutional terms, linked to the fact that many Inuit organizations had to balance their need to grow their capital pool with whatever other values Inuit may hold (for their culture and land-based life ways), appear to have taken their toll on a layer of the Inuit leadership.

It is therefore even more to their credit that the many Inuit who hold fast to traditional values were able to mobilize and defeat two major attempts to open uranium mines in Nunavut. Scottie’s memories of receiving the news that NIRB was recommending rejection of the Areva proposal (Makita had already drafted a press release expressing ‘disappointment’ in a decision they fully expected would go the other way are a high point in a book with many: few of us on the activist side of social change ‘win’ any of our battles and can quietly celebrate with Scottie the extraordinary feeling that comes when a small group of grassroots organizers actually defeat a major multinational corporate behemoth.

The form of the book is interesting and deserves comment. Scottie, Bernauer and Hicks are all authors, but the text is written as if in the first person (Scottie). The book is meticulously academically sourced and generally written in academic style prose. So we lose something in not really getting much of Scottie’s ‘voice’ in the text, but gain something by having a rigorous and careful rendering of the details that surround the various conflicts and stories she has to tell: no mean feat! It should be noted that Hicks played a critical role in both uranium struggles, while Bernauer played a key role in the second set of hearings and later helped the community of Clyde River in opposition to underwater seismic testing that was proposed for near their community. Scottie, Bernauer and Hicks made a strong team, drawing together their various forms of knowledge to produce a text that each of them on their own could not have rendered.

This book should be read, first and foremost, by young activists who want to read, learn from and perhaps be inspired by a David and Goliath story; by northernists and those interested in the politics of northern development; by environmentalists concerned about how their concerns are dealt with at the extraction end of world; by students of modern treaties and Indigenous rights and culture who want to know what happens after a treaty is settled. These struggles in the remote corners of our country are consequential and often we in the south hear very little about what actually happened, when we hear anything at all. Thanks to this book the story of the so far successful battle against uranium mining in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut has a compelling container.

Peter Kulchyski is a leading Canadian Indigenous studies scholar at the University of Manitoba.


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