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Uranium controversy in Baker Lake

Indigenous Politics

The small Inuit community of Baker Lake. Photo by Hannah Eden/Flickr.

Baker Lake is a small and mostly Inuit community. The only inland community in Nunavut, it is located west of Hudson Bay, near the geographic centre of Canada. Its Inuktitut name is Qamani’tuaq (“where the river widens”). Baker Lake is in what is referred to today as the Kivalliq region, but was formerly called the Keewatin. Next to the local high school, there is a sign boasting that Baker Lake is the “Mining Capital of the Keewatin.” Indeed, Baker Lake is home to Nunavut’s only currently operating mine, the Meadowbank gold mine owned by Agnico-Eagle Mines.

Inuit resistance to uranium mining

Since the late 1960s, Inuit in Baker Lake have been contending with uranium exploration, and the possibility of uranium mining, near their community. After more than three decades of resistance to uranium exploration and mining proposals, Baker Lake is faced with a proposal by the French state-owned multinational AREVA to construct a uranium mine called Kiggavik (falcon). The Kiggavik mine would be located 80 kilometres west of Baker Lake, upstream from the community’s water supply and in sensitive caribou habitat. If built, it would be the first uranium mine to be opened in Nunavut, and the first uranium mine anywhere to be operated in an environment of continuous permafrost. AREVA’s proposal, and uranium mining in general, is generating a great deal of controversy throughout Nunavut.

A number of interesting political developments have brought this controversy to the forefront of Nunavut’s political discourse. Inuit concern over frenzied exploration for uranium in the early 1970s led to an important court case which helped set the stage for negotiation of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement and the creation of Nunavut. In the late 1980s a German- led proposal to exploit the Kiggavik ore body was defeated by a determined coalition of community and regional groups. In a municipal plebiscite held in Baker Lake in March 1990, 90.2 percent of the voters opposed Kiggavik. During these struggles, Inuit in Baker Lake had the support of virtually all relevant Inuit organizations that existed at the time.

The nuclear PR offensive

By 2006, AREVA had acquired the rights to the Kiggavik ore body and began an intensive public relations campaign. A local public relations office was opened in the community, and AREVA began “consulting” with the community through monthly “community liaison committee” meetings and semi-regular community “open houses.” These open houses involve numerous industry experts, well-versed in various pro-nuclear talking points. Claims, which are controversial at best, are regularly made regarding the ability of nuclear energy to solve climate change, the ability of uranium to contribute to cancer research, and the recent technical progress which has ensured that uranium mining poses absolutely no threat to environmental or community health. These open houses, along with AREVA’s campaign in general, involve a number of prizes and gifts: free hats, free t-shirts, free fuel for hunting, and, most importantly, free trips for Elders to their homelands in AREVA’s exploration helicopter.

In 2007, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), the land claim corporation that represents all Nunavut Inuit, reversed its stance on uranium, adopting a new policy that supports “sustainable” uranium mining. The Government of Nunavut (GN), the public government that represents all residents of Nunavut, quickly followed suit and issued a similar policy. Both decisions were made with minimal public consultation, despite the fact that the 1997 Keewatin Regional Land Use Plan stipulated that “Any future proposal to mine uranium must be approved by the people of the region.”

After these policies were adopted, the Kivalliq Inuit Association (KIA), the regional Inuit association that has a complicated relationship with NTI, began holding consultation meetings about uranium mining with communities in the Kivalliq. These meetings mostly consisted of Qallunaat (non-Inuit) bureaucrats using materials prepared by AREVA to give long presentations that explained how great uranium mining would be for the region. Numerous industry experts employed by AREVA were present to “answer questions.” Significantly, no one with expert credentials who was critical of AREVA’s proposal was invited to attend.

In 2008 AREVA submitted their Kiggavik proposal to the Nunavut Impact Review Board (NIRB). If approved, the Kiggavik mine would consist of four open-pit and one underground mine. Furthermore, AREVA’s explicit intent is to put in place the infrastructure required to make increasing the number of uranium mines in the area economically feasible.

Public responses: Mixed and conflicted

Public reaction to these developments has been mixed, and highly conflicted. Many Inuit in Baker Lake are excited about the employment opportunities AREVA is promising. On their website AREVA claims that 50 percent of their workforce will be made up of Inuit from the region. In a community coping with the trauma of colonial administration (especially relocations, colonial schooling and paternalistic administration), promises of prosperity and self-esteem through wage employment are attractive, to say the least. That being said, Baker Lake is no longer the desperately poor community it once was. One medium-sized gold mine, Meadowbank, has tapped out the community’s labour force, requiring Agnico to fly Inuit workers in from other communities to meet their regional employment promises.

Others are less sympathetic to AREVA’s plans, and extremely frustrated with territorial governance structures decision to support uranium mining with such limited public input. Many of the Inuit I spoke with distrust AREVA’s promises of employment and are alarmed by the potential impacts of the Kiggavik proposal.

The experience with the Meadowbank gold mine has left some local Inuit with a sour taste in their mouths. While everyone I have spoken with seems happy that new jobs are available near town, many seemed upset with the conditions Inuit are subjected to at the mine. Complaints include a hostile work environment, a racially stratified workforce, racist treatment by coworkers, sexual harassment, issues surrounding the use of Inuktitut in the workplace and an alarmingly high turnover rate among Inuit employees.

During an interview, Baker Lake Elder Julie Tuluqtuq commented that “there were a lot of expectations a lot of the Elders had about what kind of work was going to go on at Agnico and how much employment the locals would get, and we never expected all these conflicts like people quitting and getting fired and stuff like that. There’s no harmony over there and that’s not what we expected.” She later added, “The way Inuit are treated up there, they’re basically treated like slaves by their supervisors and they’re made to work like dogs. The bosses are really proud and they’re hard to deal with.” These issues have some Inuit questioning whether or not another mine could actually provide more meaningful employment for the community.

Other frustrations with Meadowbank stem from a lack of local control over the mine now that it is in operation. Many are upset with the long struggle the community had to wage to gain access to the road to the Meadowbank mine. Some also feel their concerns about the need to mitigate the amount of dust the mine road produces, and the need to alter sections of the road to facilitate snowmobile crossing, are being ignored. One Elder commented that whenever hunters and Elders ask Agnico to address their concerns, “they always tell us how much money these things would cost… but they are forgetting that they are destroying our land to take money out of the ground.” Some people in the community have expressed anxiety that similar issues would arise if the Kiggavik proposal comes to fruition. A letter from the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization to the NIRB quoted a local Elder who said, “Under the Nunavut agreement, we were told we would be able to take part in the process… We were supposed to have some input in the process, our concerns were supposed to be heard and voiced and they would be used… But as soon as we got our Nunavut agreement signed, it’s like all these…Agnico and AREVA… as soon as that agreement was signed they just started going fullblast into full swing and they seem to be just skipping processes and going right ahead with opening mines and making roads and our concerns seem to be sidestepped… and it’s just like an afterthought.”

Locals have other concerns with AREVA’s proposal that are related to Kiggavik’s potential impacts on the environment and community health. Among these concerns, potential contamination of wildlife (especially caribou, fox, wolf, wolverine, muskoxen and fish), potential disturbance to wildlife and potential contamination of drinking water are most prominent. During an interview, Baker Lake Elder John Killulark said, “I’m scared of Kiggavik. It’s really close to our water supply. It’s close to the Thelon River, which flows into Baker Lake. Uranium is being exposed to the environment and once it’s exposed to the environment it might go into the streams that go into the rivers that go into Baker Lake.” In another interview, Elder Paul Atutuva said, “The concern I have is that any of the wildlife… if they might eventually consume any contaminants and become contaminated themselves and unsafe for human consumption.”

For many Inuit in Baker Lake, concerns about environmental and health impacts are about more than the specific Kiggavik proposal. “AREVA has made it clear that their intent is to open the region, and the territory, to as much uranium mining as possible. If we open this door we can never close it again,” Baker Lake hunter Joan Scottie said. “How many mines do we need? How much money do we need? How much impact can the caribou withstand?”

As a result of these concerns, many Inuit are angry with the GN and NTI for adopting pro-uranium stances without community input. Some have also criticized the manner in which the conditions of the Regional Land Use Plan were deemed to have been satisfied, based on Hamlet Council and Inuit Organization resolutions of support rather than a public plebiscite. The fact that this took place despite the long history of fierce opposition to uranium mining in Baker Lake has left many Inuit furious with their governing institutions.

Many Inuit are also frustrated with their Inuit organizations for not engaging with critical experts when they developed their policies or when they held community consultation meetings. Some residents complained that it is incredibly difficult to voice opposition when they are forced to contend with professional public relations personnel, armed with an endless supply of pro-nuclear talking points. One Elder complained, “They keep telling you these good stories of products in your own home… As an example, TV gives off radiation or is made from some sort of radioactive material… so is your microwave, so is the clock. They say, ‘If that’s safe, why shouldn’t our products be safe?’ Obviously it is hard to answer back when you are told that your TV produces radioactivity. They give you that answer and it is hard to really talk back. It gets to the point where there may be issues that might come up, but given that type of answer it is difficult to try and talk back. You may have concerns, but how do you explain what your concerns might be given the type of answers you are given?”

Organizing opposition

Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit (“the people of Nunavut can rise up”), or Makita, was formed by some residents of Baker Lake and Iqaluit as a response to this situation. Makita is a non-governmental organization with the goal of fostering public debate about uranium mining in Nunavut. Two veteran anti-uranium-mining activists, Joan Scottie of Baker Lake and Jack Hicks of Iqaluit, helped form the group. They were joined by a new generation of activists, most notably the articulate young Iqaluit lawyer Sandra Inutiq.

In the early summer of 2010, Makita submitted a petition to the GN, requesting a public inquiry into the issue of uranium mining in Nunavut. The group argued that a public inquiry would be “more transparent, flexible and democratic than a regulatory process,” and that a public inquiry would help residents of the territory deal with the regulatory and policy decisions that were being made without their participation. Additionally, they suggested that a public inquiry would help the territory properly determine whether or not governing bodies are capable of properly monitoring uranium mining, enforcing regulations and responding to uranium-related accidents in Nunavut.

The GN responded in August 2010 by denying the request for a public inquiry, instead launching a “public forum” process on uranium mining. These public forums consisted of a series of public meetings in Baker Lake, Iqaluit and Cambridge Bay in the winter/ spring of 2011.

Makita criticized the GN’s choice to hold public forums rather than an inquiry, stating that the “process proposed is window dressing. Public meetings without a mandate for research and reporting, and without clear standards for transparency or process, will be a waste of time and money.” Furthermore, the background information on uranium the GN commissioned for the public forums was criticized by Makita and Mining Watch Canada as factually inaccurate and clearly biased in favour of the nuclear industry.

On the heels of the GN’s public forums, NTI President Cathy Towtongie announced that her organization would also review its uranium policy. Towtongie made this announcement at a leaders’ summit of the Inuit Circumpolar Council in February 2011. Tension within the organization resulted in a media release qualifying this call for a review, stipulating that NTI would “take into account existing legal obligations.” (NTI has been “given” shares in companies exploring the region for uranium.) NTI’s review is scheduled to begin once the GN concludes its public forum process. Meanwhile, the NIRB’s review of AREVA’s Kiggavik proposal has continued, with more than a little controversy.

The amount of intervener funding provided to interested parties by the Federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development is quite small, and divided between numerous groups. As it stands, no groups will have enough funding to under take a comprehensive review of AREVA’s Environmental Impact Statement (EIS).

Serious concerns have also been brought up regarding the lack of translation into Inuktitut of important documents. The review board’s guidelines for AREVA’s EIS were only made available in English. In response, both Makita and the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Organization requested that the review process be put on hold until the guidelines could be properly translated into Inuktitut. The NIRB denied their requests on the grounds that technical concepts could not be translated.

Eugene Niviatsiaq, a board member of the Hunters and Trappers Organization, told an NIRB meeting that “NIRB has failed us. You have failed hunters and Elders who only speak, read and write Inuktitut.” Niviatsiaq noted that uranium mining was first proposed for the Kivalliq region in the late 1980s. “Uranium-related words should have been translated a long time ago.” Makita’s Joan Scottie also criticized the NIRB’s decision: “How are unilingual Inuktitut-speaking hunters in Baker Lake and other Kivalliq communities, the people with probably the most to lose if the region is open to uranium mining, supposed to understand and take part in the review process if they are prevented from reading the most important document that the NIRB has to produce?”

The EIS guidelines have also been criticized by Makita for their inattention to cumulative impacts (especially the potential spin-off projects that Kiggavik will likely engender) and by Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada (the national Inuit women’s organization) for their lack of attention to Inuit women’s issues.

Some Inuit have complained that they have no way of knowing whether or not the concerns they voice during consultation meetings are being addressed, because actual decisions are made by a complex and highly technical bureaucratic structure that operates in a language many of them do not speak. This has left many feeling highly apathetic towards the review process. An Elder in Baker Lake complained, “People have been coming up here for years and years asking all kinds of questions and at times it’s like we’re just speaking into the air and nothing ever gets done.” In an interview, Baker Lake Elder John Killulark asserted that he did not like the idea of having a uranium mine located close to his source of food and water, but that “in Baker Lake we have no powers to [object]…we have no course of action…nowhere to say anything.”

Tied up in process

For the moment, Makita and other concerned Nunavummiut must sit and wait. AREVA’s EIS is due to be released in January 2012, after which Makita, the Hunters and Trappers Organization, Inuit organizations and other concerned parties will have to find a way to use their minimal financial resources to analyze and critique a massive compendium of highly technical documents. The results of the GN’s public forum process, as well as NTI’s policy review, have not yet been released.

The decision whether to approve Kiggavik and open the Kivalliq region—and Nunavut as a whole—to uranium mining ultimately rests in the hands of elected Inuit politicians. Makita organizer Jack Hicks notes that “if uranium mining is approved in Nunavut, it will be because the institutions established as a result of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement made it possible. The Nunavut land claim process was kick-started by exploration for uranium in the Kivalliq, but it’s not impossible that the post-land-claim Inuit leadership ends up in bed with the nuclear industry.” Watching the GN and NTI carefully will be Nunavut’s only environmental NGO, Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit.

“By omitting vital sustainability issues at a time when the Arctic’s ecosystem is undergoing monumental challenges,” Makita chairperson Sandra Inutiq told the first GN public forum, “we risk deepening the issues of health impacts, social impacts, impacts on the ecosystem of mining. We should learn from what is going on in the world just as the hunter learns by reading the conditions of the elements around him. We are losing our moral compass if we go blindly into this storm.”

Makita continues to call for a public vote on the question of uranium mining in Nunavut: “A democratic vote is the only way to know for sure how people feel—no corporate spin or backroom deals, just you, your conscience, and a ballot.”

Warren Bernauer is a PhD Student at York University, where he studies the politics of uranium mining in Nunavut.

This article appeared in the January/February 2012 issue of Canadian Dimension (Inuit Focus and Occupy Movement ).


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