While public attention focuses on oil sands extraction in Alberta, a group of remote northern Dene trappers are fighting to preserve some of their traditional land from uranium miners.
On November 22nd, 2014, a small group of Dene trappers called the Northern Trappers Alliance set up a checkpoint on Saskatchewan's Highway 955, allowing locals to pass while blockading the industrial traffic of tar sands and uranium exploration companies. On December 1st, officers of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police descended on the site with an injunction from the province and forcibly dismantled the blockade.
Eighty days later, the trappers remain camped on the side of the highway in weather that has routinely dipped below -40C. They are constructing a cabin to stay there permanently. The cabin will be a meeting place for Dene people and northern land defenders.
"We want industry to get the hell out of here and stop this killing," said Don Montgrand, who has been at the encampment since day one and was named as one of its leaders on the police injunction. "We want this industry to get the hell out before we lose any more people here. We lose kids, adults, teenagers."
"They're willing to stay as long as it takes to get the point across that any of this kind of development is not going to be welcomed," said Candyce Paul, the alliance's spokesperson and a member of the anti-nuclear Committee for the Future Generations. "It's indefinite."
"We don't want to become a sacrifice zone. That's where we see ourselves heading."
The trappers say an unprecedented rise in cancer is the legacy of contamination from nearby uranium mines. With significant tar sands and uranium deposits in their area, the trappers are developing a long-term strategy to halt the industrial growth threatening to deform their surroundings and scare away the wildlife they depend on for food, income, and culture.
About an hour north of the alliance's location, a recent discovery by Fission Uranium Corp. could lead to the development of one of the world's largest high-grade uranium mines.
Further north, abandoned and decommissioned uranium mines already host millions of tonnes of radioactive dust (also known as tailings) that must be isolated from the surrounding environment for millennia, while no clean-up plans exist for the legacy of severe and widespread watershed contamination that is synonymous with Uranium City, Saskatchewan. To the east, "an integrated uranium corridor spreading over 250 kilometres" hosts the largest high-grade uranium mines and mills in the world, with their own stockpiles of radioactive tailings and a decades-long history of radioactive spills.
To the west, about 140km by air, the open-pit mines, poisonous lakes, and high-emitting petrochemical facilities of Alberta's tar sands have caused a number of highly publicized human health and environmental crises. In Saskatchewan's north-west, the impacts of this development are felt through acid rain that degrades soil, vegetation, and water.
"When they spew the pollution, it affects our water, lakes, fish—any kind of species. Our traditional life destroyed with these oil mines around us," said Kenneth, one of the trappers. "We're in the middle of these oil mines and the government's still not listening."
"We know our water isn't as good as it used to be," said Paul. "You see more fish with lesions."
The trappers are in conflict with elected leaders to their south, including local governments who are developing ties with industry and making decisions affecting lands beyond their jurisdiction. The province is looking to indigenous lands in the north for new bitumen and mineral mines, a high-level nuclear waste dump site, and the construction of nuclear reactors to encourage "environmentally responsible" tar sands extraction by exporting energy to Alberta.
"We know the government really doesn't care about the northern people. They would rather see us move out of our region," Paul said. "We're in the way."
"I won't pack up my home and leave just like that," said Jean Marie Montgrand, an elder from Descharme Lake, speaking in Dene in a translated video. A tiny hamlet, Descharme Lake has a population of about 40 and relies on well-water and wild foods. Residents say they are being encouraged to abandon the community and move to towns in the south. Notably, its public school was just closed.
"I live off the land and from that lake. Fish, ducks, moose, rabbit—everything I need is there," he said. "We don't live off store bought foods."
More than 85 percent of northern Saskatchewan residents are aboriginal, while 95 percent are indigenous in the trappers' remote area. Most people speak Dene, often as a first language.
In the last days of January, the Northern Trappers Alliance invited supporters to attend a meeting on the future of their camp. They say it drew about 150 attendees.
"There were people there from all directions of the Dene nation," Paul recalled.
From diverse communities in BC, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and Manitoba, aboriginal people brought similar stories of colonization, industrial growth, and ecological devastation spreading hand-in-hand.
"We allowed the newcomer to come in and, because we were so kind, now we have nothing," said Brian Grandbois, an elder from Cold Lake, to the group.
"Cold Lake has no territory left—it's all oil-developed and they have no access to it anymore," said Paul. "Same with Fort McKay. There's no access, there's gates everywhere. Janvier's getting close to that point. So the warning was: 'Don't let them through. Don't take the deals.'"
Companies are currently in the exploration phases of their projects, meaning that any large-scale mines are years away. But the trappers say animals are already being scared away by "road-building, drilling, line-cutting [tree-cutting], big trucks and equipment," and "work camps." Contractors are leaving conventional and chemical garbage in their wake, and overtaking traditional areas. The recent "monster" uranium discovery has brought many more companies to the region, increasing traffic and the likelihood of a major mine.
"They're drilling all over the place," Paul said. "If they're scaring off all the wildlife and we can't actually live from hunting and fishing anymore, that's going to be a loss of our rights." In Beaver Lake Cree territory, a similar loss of constitutional rights is the subject of an enormous legal challenge to tar sands development, alleging that Canada and Alberta issued more than 20,000 permits without ever consulting the affected community.
"They're drilling in our backyard and we never got consulted," said Bobby Montgrand, Jean Marie's son. He is a leader at the camp and was named as such on the government's injunction.
The Saskatchewan government differentiates between industrial exploration and development, and does not consult with aboriginal people or groups until full-scale mines are planned. In the exploration phase of projects, "consultation" has mainly consisted of advertisements, radio announcements, and an open house where eight corporations presented concurrently about their (often already in-progress) operations. Regional politicians note that more consultation will occur when a mining project is officially proposed.
Candyce Paul summarized the typical progression: "They're up there for a few years, and then they tell people that they're up there."
While the province agreed to meet the Northern Trappers Alliance, they would not meet under the alliance's terms.
"We wanted the government to come and meet only on the land, and not behind closed doors. What we had actually said was, so that earth could hear their lies," said Paul. "More truth, more honesty, will come out on the land than behind closed doors."
The roots of this distrust date back decades, if not centuries.
In 1977, before the uranium mine closest to the trappers' camp at Cluff Lake was approved, First Nations and Métis leaders called for a moratorium on uranium development until existing indigenous land claims were resolved. The government's Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry excluded from its deliberations any consideration of the effects of mining on aboriginal rights, prompting many First Nations and Métis leaders to boycott the hearings.
The Association of Métis and Non-Status Indians (AMNSI) did not boycott. The group spoke plainly to the board: "The proposed uranium development represents only one of hundreds of corporate and government decisions to commit robbery, theft, and even genocide against our people."
Arguing that aboriginal title to the land had not been legally extinguished, AMNSI asserted: "It is only just that it be our people who determine whether or not this development be allowed to proceed."
Regardless, the mine was built.
More than three decades later, a legal letter sent on behalf of the Northern Trappers Alliance picks up this thread, arguing that the Dene community has never surrendered its lands and therefore still holds indigenous title to them. Quoting a recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling, the letter asserts that the right to determine how the land will be used still belongs to the Dene people.
The letter argues that "the Crown is in breach of its duty to consult and accommodate" and "the RCMP are then exceeding their jurisdiction when they are escorting commercial vehicles of the uranium and oil interests into this unceded, unsurrendered territory." It demands "proper consultation" and that "the RCMP desist in assisting commercial vehicles to encroach on Indigenous Title lands."
A response from the Attorney General of Saskatchewan refutes the Dene argument: "The Government's position is that Aboriginal title was surrendered by Treaty throughout the province and, accordingly, we do not consult in relation to such claims."
This position, that treaties extinguished aboriginal title, is questionable.
"Those of us that belong to the numbered treaties—the violations are very evident," said Brian Grandbois. "Our people didn't understand English back in the late 1800s. The treaties were signed with Xs because our people never talked English, they never wrote English.
"Before the ink was dry on those treaties they were violated. They were negotiated in bad faith. They dealt with a people that could not understand their language."
A legal analysis submitted to the Key Lake Board of Inquiry in 1980, as they pondered licensing a new uranium mine, commented that "the extinguishment of title by treaty is subject to some question on account of the Indian understanding of the terms and explanations" and that "serious doubts exist as to the extinguishment of Métis aboriginal title." The report also quotes an earlier scholar, who inferred that aboriginal signatures were forged on the treaty that affects the alliance's region: "... on Treaty 8 documents nearly all of the marks next to the Chiefs' names are identical, perfectly regular with a similar slant, evidently made by the practiced hand of one person."
In the shadow of this colonial history is a contemporary health crisis.
The Key Lake project operates today as the largest high-grade uranium mill in the world, becoming known across Canada when operators accidentally spilled hundreds of millions of litres of radioactive liquid into the environment in 1984.
Closer to the trappers, the Cluff Lake mine was decommissioned in 2006. The mill was demolished, the open-pit mines filled. The tailings ponds were de-watered and millions of pounds of radioactive dust were buried, ostensibly forever, under an "engineered soil cover" and planted over with trees. Long-term environmental monitoring is tasked to Areva, the former operator of the mine.
"Some of the local people have gone to work on the decommissioning of the Cluff Lake Mine and they know that those tailings were leaking and that the work was not permanent—they'll leak again," said Candyce Paul.
The project's decommissioning plan projects that it will leave the former mine site "suitable for traditional land uses consisting of casual access, with trapping, hunting and fishing," though it acknowledges leaving behind contaminated surface and groundwater. A 2005 study found moose near uranium mines had elevated levels of radionuclides in their edible tissues; Chief Ted Clark says locals frequently hunt moose near the old mine.
"Many people have been getting sick... it's a concern even amongst the young people. In a three month period six people died in the community of cancer, and these are not really old people—like people in their 50s, people that have worked in the mines," said Paul. "A high rate of the people who worked in the Cluff Lake mine are no longer with us."
"AREVA is not aware of any death of former Cluff Lake employees," the company rebuked in a statement to VICE, noting that 24 former Cluff Lake miners still work for the company. Areva cited a study that found uranium miners healthier than the general population with the exception of lung cancer incidences. The company said its tailings facilities are "routinely inspected" and argued that "the risk of breach is negligible."
"In Canada AREVA's uranium mines are heavily monitored by federal and provincial regulators, who keep the company in check in terms of environmental performance," the statement said. At the centre of this regulatory regime is the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC), which publicly promotes the scientific fallacy that low levels of radiation do not contribute to cancer. In contrast, the National Academies of Sciences have found conclusively that any exposure to ionizing radiation will increase the risks of developing cancer.
Broadly, government and industry maintain that the land, water, air, and traditional foods surrounding uranium mines are not adversely affected by development. However, a Pembina report notes that "the environment and biota in the vicinity of uranium mines has been contaminated with radionuclides, particularly via windblown dust from tailings sites," and identifies "significant potential increases in cancer risks to humans from the consumption of caribou in the vicinity of uranium mines."
Calls for baseline and epidemiological health studies on the impacts of uranium mining and milling on nearby communities have gone unanswered by both government and industry since the 1970s. Author Jim Harding notes in a recorded lecture: "There is still no baseline data, which is the first step in any credible social or health impact research. Industry continues to be allowed to operate in the dark without any fundamental ecological or legal accountability."
"For us to look at it on a quantitative level, we have no choice but to experience fatalities on a very small group of people," said Susnaghe Neneh, Paul's partner.
"Prior to the openings of the mines... it was a rare, rare occasion when somebody got cancer and died from it. This is what the Elders in all of our communities are saying—there was no cancer. It was maybe once in a blue moon somebody would get that," Paul said. "This kind of an economy comes with its hazards and a shortened life span is one of them.
"If the government wants these projects to come through, they just do not increase any funding and kind of force [communities] into a corner," she argued. "We saw that directly with the English River First Nation, with the Cameco deal. The leaders were being told Indian Affairs is going to be cutting their fiduciary responsibility, so you better start looking at other ways to get funding."
As the federal government cuts millions from First Nations budgets—impacting health, education, and job programs—they encourage northerners to work in the mines through multi-million dollar training subsidies. The government says it is fostering aboriginal "self-sufficiency" by cutting funds, when it is actually creating dependency on revenue from extraction.
In 2013, Saskatchewan Premiere Brad Wall endorsed this policy with bravado, telling a group of his supporters that "the best program for First Nations and Métis people in Saskatchewan is not a program at all—it's Cameco."
Cameco is the world's largest uranium company.
"We don't want our people to be engaged in only mining, ever," Paul said. "When it's done, when it's over, you're going to have a whole generation of people that have nothing."
"We want input on what type of development we have. We'd rather develop a locally, sustainable economy that doesn't interfere with how people live.... We're trying to promote renewable energy choices. We're trying to promote alternative housing—fostering independence, local food sovereignty projects."
At the meeting in January, Dene people discussed territorial mapping that would be useful for land claims, and talked about "helping each other build homes" as a step toward solving their northern housing crisis. An idea of ecotourism, designed to teach reverence of nature to people likely to invest in extractive industries, was floated.
Most significantly, Paul said, "we decided that we're going to work towards a land-based education, because one of the things that has been happening is people are being brought in off the land for the sake of educating their children. So they're not on the land full time, which government interprets to be 'well, there's nobody out there.'
"As soon as the land is emptied out, they will go in and do whatever they want. So the position is to occupy the land."
Cameco has secured a social license by spending millions on northern hockey arenas, school programs, aboriginal scholarships, youth and elders events, and charitable programs like "touchdown for dreams" which, without a shred of irony, "will grant seven to ten wishes each year to Saskatchewan women with a life-threatening diagnosis of cancer."
Other corporations have made similar efforts to integrate into communities: Fission sponsors a volleyball team and summer camp programs, while the Nuclear Waste Management Organization made a phenomenally insensitive sales pitch to bury nuclear waste during a healing circle held by indigenous Elders to address the problem of youth suicide. Streets in La Loche were paved with money from Oil Sands Quest.
These enticements haven't resonated with Jean Marie Montgrand. "The white man does not look out for our best interests," the Dene elder said. "If we went into their house and asked for coffee they would not give it to us unless we had money... We're not like that. We would offer maybe tea or bannock if we had any and ask for nothing in return."
"White people aren't like that. When you have nothing, you have nothing. If we had no money how could we eat?"
Fission Uranium has courted local Chief Ted Clark of CRDN, appointing him to an executive advisory board, offering him stock options, and retaining paid services from a company he owns. He told me "I don't think this constitutes a conflict of interest. What I do think is it benefits the community in a way," arguing aboriginal involvement means better environmental oversight on projects.
"We are two communities that are highly unemployed. We're looking for ways of finding employment," Chief Clark said. "If development is going to happen, then we want to be there alongside you. Not holding a shovel. We want to be up there. Right in the executive seat."
"There's a lot of animosity between the elected leaders and the people in the camp," Paul said, in an apparent understatement. The group maintains that the leaders of La Loche and CRDN are making decisions, without jurisdiction, that are detrimental to their communities. On this colonial frontier, Indian Act systems of hierarchy and individualism are replacing Dene systems based on consensus and mutual aid.
This animosity has led to mud-slinging. Chief Clark told me that the roadblock was used to exclude people on the basis of race (also noting that the excluded person worked for industry), while Mayor Jolibois argued that Don and Bobby Montgrand "and their friends" had "nothing better to do" than set up an elaborate ruse to accumulate donations.
"They don't even have a trapper's license.... They don't have anything behind them. They're just blowing out words," Mayor Jolibois told me. Government officials confirmed that only Jean Marie Montgrand is licensed to trap commercially, but noted First Nations and Métis people don't require a license to trap for themselves.
In almost three months, neither Clark nor Jolibois have come out to the camp site, while officials at all levels of government rejected the alliance's invitation to attend their three day meeting.
"Government doesn't intend to listen," Paul said. "Government wants one result and one result only, and that's not the result that we intend. Whether they're here or not, we're having this meeting, and we're going to come up with our own solution, not [one] from government of any kind."
As the trappers build their cabins, supporters are trickling in from across Dene lands. A fundraising event was held for the alliance in Edmonton, while donated supplies and funds have accrued from across Saskatchewan and are regularly delivered to the camp by Stewart Martin, a supporter.
"I got a call from Don this morning and he said, 'You wouldn't believe it—people are still coming.' People are still coming out there and supporting," Paul said. "One of the strong things about the LaLoche area is everybody, man, woman, and child, all speak the language."
"This is the first time Dene people have come out with a big voice," said Don Montgrand. "There are Dene people all along this area. It's straight Dene.
"We've got nothing left up north. Just a little piece of green land and a little bit of clean water left, in this whole of northern Canada," Don said. "I'll tell you that for sure."
"Unless we pull together somehow we won't have any land left," said Jean Marie Montgrand. "The white man is taking over."
"We have to do it," Don said.
"For our kids. Our generations."
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