Since November 19, 2014, Dene and Metis trappers have been camped out at a checkpoint on highway 955 near LaLoche, Saskatchewan in Treaty 8 lands, to stop Cenovus Energy from accessing indigenous lands. With temperatures regularly dropping to –400C throughout the winter, their conviction to occupy the land remains strong and the trappers have moved their camp to the Clearwater River.
The Northern Trappers Alliance are taking a stand in response to the mineral and oil exploration that has grown in the past six years across their traditional hunting grounds. They have found roads to traditional hunting grounds gated and blocked, preventing them from entering. This has been done without their consent or knowledge, and in violation of treaties.
They are very concerned about the unprecedented rise in cancer, which they believe is due to contamination from nearby uranium mines.
Potash and Uranium
Mining in Saskatchewan centres around potash and uranium. In the north, 36 abandoned and decommissioned uranium mines left behind piles of radioactive dust, known as tailings. After closure in the 1960s, the Gunnar mine site along the shore of Lake Athabaska, with all of the other uranium mine and mill sites, were abandoned with little remediation and no reclamation. The governments of Canada and Saskatchewan are now funding the clean-up of these abandoned sites. To the east, a 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 history of radioactive spills.
The trappers say an unprecedented rise in cancer is the legacy of contamination from nearby uranium mines. Uranium is soluble in water and emits radiation until it stabilizes as lead in 4.5 billion years. The World Health Organization says that radon gas, a by-product of uranium, is the second leading cause of lung cancer.
In the trappers’ remote area, more than 85 per cent of northern Saskatchewan residents are aboriginal and most people speak Dene, often as a first language. In January, 2015 the Northern Trappers Alliance invited supporters to attend a meeting on the future of their camp. It drew about 150 attendees from communities across BC, Alberta, the Northwest Territories, and Manitoba. Aboriginal people shared similar stories of colonization, industrial growth, and ecological devastation.
The trappers are in conflict with elected leaders to their south, including local governments who are developing ties with industry and making decisions that affect 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.
The province of Saskatchewan has said that it is not required to consult with communities during the exploration phase of a project. Regional politicians note that more consultation will occur when a mining project is officially proposed. The Northern Trapper Alliance requested to meet with the province but they would not meet under the alliance’s terms of meeting on the land, not behind closed doors.
The trappers say that thirty years of jobs and money is not worth the sacrifice of contaminated land and water. They say the time to stand up and speak out is now.
Support the Alliance via their Facebook page: Holding the line –Northern Trappers Alliance
Susan MacVittie is the managing editor of the Watershed Sentinel