Uranium Hype Hits Indigenous Opposition Globally, Provokes Conflict in the North

Jamie Kneen Communications and Outreach Coordinator responsible for: strategic research, social media, and public engagement; our Africa program, environmental assessment, and uranium mining.

The Indigenous World Uranium Summit

The Indigenous World Uranium Summit, held in Window Rock, Arizona, on November 30 to December 2, 2006, was a vindication of the Navajo Nation’s ban on uranium mining in Navajo Nation Territory and a regrouping of Indigenous opposition to uranium mining globally. People from Indigenous communities around the world spoke about their experiences living with the effects of the mining and use of uranium, from Fiji to India to the North America.

Summit participants issued a declaration and made plans to work together to prevent further expansion of the uranium/nuclear industry and eventually phase it out altogether, to monitor and prevent damage to the environment and people’s health, and to support and win compensation from the responsible state and corporate parties for people suffering from past and current abuses.

As part of the Summit, the Nuclear-Free Future Awards were also handed out at a ceremony on December 1. The recipients were:

  • for Resistance: Sun Xiaodi, China, for his moral courage to petition for an end to the toxic mismanagement corrupting Chinese uranium mining and milling;
  • for Education: Dr. Gordon Edwards, Canada, for his enduring role in demystifying nuclear technology and helping the public understand its perilous predicament;
  • for Solutions: Wolfgang Scheffler and Heike Hoedt, Germany, for the valuable contributions their solar reflectors have made towards improving the quality of life in developing regions,
  • for Lifetime Achievement: Ed Grothus, USA, for his unique brand of gadfly peace activism in the community of Los Alamos, the birthplace of the bomb;
  • Special Recognition: Phil Harrison, Navajo Nation, for his many years of struggle as a visionary activist calling the uranium industry to account for its blind and poisonous greed; and
  • Special Recognition: Southwest Research and Information Center, USA, for helping people and communities across the Southwest understand and overcome their radioactive legacy.

Critical Caribou Habitat Threatened

Meanwhile, uranium exploration near the world-famous Thelon Game Sanctuary on the border of Nunavut and the Northwest Territories has provoked alarm from the Dene and Inuit communities dependent on the Bathurst, Beverly, and Qamanirjuak caribou herds that use the area for grazing and calving. The Beverly and Qamanirjuak Caribou Management Board has expressed concern about uranium mining and other industrial development in the area and has published a map of mineral rights holders on the calving grounds.

This issue has been hotly contested since uranium exploration began in the area in the 1970s; as Baker Lake resident Joan Scottie said to the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, Austria, in 1992, “If anything happened to the caribou we’d have nothing left but welfare.”

The Baker Lake Court Case

Concerned about its effects on the caribou, Baker Lake Inuit went to court and won an injunction against mining exploration in their territory in 1978. However, the following year, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that although they possessed aboriginal rights to occupy and harvest land, those rights didn’t give Inuit the legal power to stop uranium prospecting in the Kivalliq (Keewatin) region (Judge Patrick Mahoney ruled that Inuit aboriginal rights do not fall within the accepted legal classification of property rights, since property rights over the region were granted by King Charles in 1670 to his German cousin Rupert).

Despite this limitation, the recognition of Inuit land rights helped provide the legal basis for the Nunavut land claim agreement. In addition, Indian and Northern Affairs Canada introduced Caribou Protection Measures in 1978 to appease Baker Lake residents worried about the impact of mineral exploration on caribou, imposing seasonal controls on land use operations inside identified Caribou Protection Areas.

Urangeselleschaft and the Baker Lake Plebiscite

All that exploration activity led to the discovery of several uranium deposits, and in the late 1980s a German company, Urangeselleschaft, proposed to build the “Kiggavik” mine 75 kilometres west of Baker Lake. Opposition from Inuit hunters and elders led to a municipal plebiscite on March 26, 1990, that rejected the project by 90.2%; not long afterwards, on July 5, the company asked the federal environmental assessment panel for an “indefinite delay” of the review process.

To the Present

The Keewatin (Kivalliq) Regional Land Use Plan, published by the Nunavut Planning Commission, has been in effect since 2000, prohibiting uranium mining in the region until Nunavut’s environmental management boards (the Nunavut Planning Commission, Nunavut Impact Review Board, Nunavut Water Board, and Nunavut Wildlife Management Board) “have reviewed all of the issues relevant to uranium exploration and mining…[with] particular attention to questions concerning health and environmental protection,” and stating that “[a]ny future proposal to mine uranium must be approved by the people of the region.”

Nevertheless, the body that represents Nunavut’s Inuit land claims beneficiaries, Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), has adopted a policy in favour of uranium mining. The policy is based on the rationale that encouraging uranium mining and nuclear energy generation will help minimise the impacts of climate change, and assumes that nuclear waste will not be returned to the North (with the exception of the 85% of radioactivity that remains in the mine tailings). The policy ignores the fact that fossil fuels are used in uranium exploration, mining, and transportation as well as nuclear power plant construction, producing significant greenhouse gas emissions, and that the energy implications of nuclear waste storage are unknown.

The document also asserts that environmental and health concerns about uranium mining have been resolved but provides no references or supporting evidence, and provides little information about the potential impacts of radioactivity released into the environment.

Opposition has come from Inuit in Baker Lake (the Baker Lake Hunters and Trappers Association has asked for a moratorium on exploration) and Baffin Island (Qikiqtani Inuit Association board members have questioned the policy) as well as the Beverly-Qamanirjuak Caribou Management Board and the World Wildlife Fund.

Meanwhile, Ur Energy’s proposed Screech Lake uranium exploration program, just a few kilometres from the Thelon Game Sanctuary, is undergoing an environmental assessment by the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board. It is being opposed by Inuit from Baker Lake as well as Dene from Lutsel K’e and Northern Saskatchewan.

Two of the Athabasca Dene First Nations don’t seem to have a problem with uranium development in their own reserves, however. CanAlaska Uranium Ltd. has signed option agreements with the Fond du Lac and Black Lake Denesuliné First Nations to undertake uranium exploration on their reserve lands.