September 24, 2007
Algonquin Resist Uranium Mine
Sharbot Lake Algonquins and locals occupy mining site and enforce land claim
Welcome to Frontenac County. Ottawa is an hour's drive to the northeast, Kingston a similar distance to the south. Algonquin Provincial Park lies to the northwest.
This beautiful lake is one of many in the centre of an ongoing uranium mining controversy. The 30,000 acres surrounding this lake in North Frontenac lie atop the edge of the Ottawa Valley’s Canadian Shield. This land is often referred to as the “Land ‘O’ Lakes” tourist region.
With vast areas of Crown land, this region is also home to a healthy deer, wolf and moose population, and other rare or endangered species such as the blue lined skink and flying squirrel. Many residents live in the strip of forest and wetlands between Bon Echo and Sharbot Lake provincial parks. Many who live in the region have conservation in their bones, and local political issues, prior to this year, included deer management and spring bear hunting.
However, residents and tourists alike have recently learned that this area is also rich in uranium. A recent worldwide surge in nuclear power development has driven up the price of uranium, leading many companies to begin exploring the possibility of mining for the radioactive element.
Canada has a long history of uranium mining. Uranium mined by Sahtugot'ine (the Dene First Nation of Sahtu, or Great Bear Lake), who were hired by the government, was used to create the first atomic bombs, detonated on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. C.D. Howe, then Minister of Munitions and Supply in William Lyon Mackenzie King's Liberal Government, issued a press statement saying, "It is a particular pleasure for me to announce that Canadian scientists have played an intimate part, and have been associated in an effective way with this great scientific development." Though an official warning was issued by the federal government in 1931, warning of the risks of handling uranium ore, mine workers were not informed of the risk.
In the 1960s, many of the Sahtugot'ine workers began to die of cancer of the lung, colon, and kidney. Studies of radioactive-based illnesses in the Elliot Lake region of northern Ontario, dating back to 1974, show the same correlation between uranium mining and carcinogenic diseases.
Today, Canada is the largest producer of uranium in the world, accounting for an estimated 27.9 per cent of world's uranium production. About 15 per cent of Canada's electricity comes from the country's 18 nuclear reactors.
Frontenac County is also home to a strong off-reserve Aboriginal population. About two months ago, when it was discovered that the Frontenac Ventures Development Corporation had begun staking Crown land for mining exploration, this community began protesting the potential mine.
Staking of land by hired prospectors has been done since settlers first arrived in Canada. Prospectors are allowed, according to the Ontario mining law of 1870, to enter any land, including that designated as Crown land or which is privately owned, and stake claims on the subsurface rights for future mining exploration. To date there have been 70 claims staked in North Frontenac alone.
The only obstacle to the 1870 mining law is a land claim filed by local Algonquins that dates back to 1772. Despite a “dispute” process set up by the Ministry of Mining and Northern Development, which allows land owners to disagree with the presence of prospecting stakes on their property, there is no process in place to deal with mining exploration on aboriginal land. Landowners in Frontenac County have little recourse when it comes to the mining company’s plans, which include digging trenches, cutting trees, pulling out core samples and releasing uranium into groundwater supplies and the air. As a result, many such residents have supported the cause of the aboriginal land claim.
The protest began on June 29, day of National protest by Aboriginal peoples across Canada. Members of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation occupied Frontenac Ventures' base camp on Road 509, just north of the village of Sharbot Lake, Ontario.
If Frontenac Ventures has its way, it will drill for uranium samples which many say will spoil the land, air, and water for the thousands of local residents, cottagers and tourists. The company’s staked land encompasses a large part of North and Central Frontenac, a watershed region that is linked to Ottawa via the Mississippi River.
Once exposed to the open air, uranium dust can travel for thousands of kilometres. Uranium tailings (waste left behind after mining) are radioactive, and remain so for millions of years. The company plans to use one of the local lakes to "bury" the tailings left over from uranium exploration and mining. In this Land ‘O’ Lakes, each lake connects to the next, up to the Mississippi River, which connects to the Ottawa River.
To date, Parliament has made no statements about the mining project. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, demonstrators say, has the power to call an immediate moratorium on uranium mining in Ontario. To the chagrin of many local residents, McGuinty has not spoken to the issue of uranium mining.
The Ardoch Algonquin First Nation and the Shabot Obaadijiwan First Nation, both local to Frontenac County, came together to present a united front against uranium mining.
They say that the subsurface rights in the area (all land below the surface) belong to them via a land claim which reaches back to 1772. The mining company argues that the subsurface rights are Crown land, for which the law says mining is allowed by anyone who legally stakes it, according to the Ontario mining law of 1870.
Frontenac Ventures has staked about 30,000 acres for mining, including both Crown land and privately owned land. The current mining law states that the company can stake subsurface land anywhere, no matter who owns it. The company’s exploration process includes the digging of trenches and holes, the cutting of trees and taking out any obstacles to the mining exploration, including roads owned by the township. So far there have been 70 land parcels of at least one hectare each staked in Frontenac county for the purposes of uranium exploration. Landowners in the area have no workable solution.
But there is one exception: an unsettled Aboriginal claim can supercede the mining law.
On June 29th, 2007, a day of National Aboriginal Protests, the Ardoch Algonquins began to occupy the site where Frontenac Ventures had set up its base camp. The base camp site, now the protest site, is north of Highway 7, up Road 509 about 10 kilometres, near the town of Sharbot Lake. The AFFNA and Shabot bands have remained at the site ever since, in protest of mining activity.
On September 24, 2007, John Tory, leader of the Conservative party, announced via the media that as part of his new election platform he would like to see a “fine for anyone occupying land that is not owned by them, in the amount of $2500.00 per day.” It is assumed that he was referring in part to the Frontenac uranium protest, but again the issue was not brought to the forefront by the politicians themselves.
Locals who have had their land staked by the corporation, as well as supporters from many other areas, have been a presence outside the base camp gate.
Only the aboriginal groups enter the base camp, which they claim is their land to do with as they please. Settlers, though they may own land, cannot make the same claim as the Algonquins to mining sites and subsurface land rights. The settlers and tourists alike are, for the majority, supporting the Algonquins in their protest; the only alternative is to adhere to the present mining laws, which have not been revised since their inception in 1870. Both the Algonquins and the settlers have been attempting to have their voices heard in Parliament; they want a moratorium of this outdated mining law.
The Canadian Shield is in the immediate vicinity of cities lying to the south of Highway 7 (Kington, Belleville, Frontenac), as well as Ottawa. Many protesters and locals are asking: how small does Ottawa think its backyard is?
Locals who support the Algonquins have camped at the site or have dropped by to show support. They have brought food, water and fuel to the protesters. The temporary camp put up by the Algonquins is becoming permanent.
Efforts are now underway to ensure that, if necessary, the Algonquin protesters can remain at the site throughout the winter season. Donations of food and money for legal fees are being collected toward this goal.
Anti-uranium signs dot the tree-filled landscape in Frontenac County.
The issue is regularly reported in the local paper, The Frontenac News
. Some papers in Kingston and Ottawa have also covered the mining controversy.
Greenpeace and the Christian Peacemaker Team have joined in the cause. Most recently Elizabeth May, leader of the Green Party, has spoken out against uranium mining in Ontario, and in support of this protest.
A judge from the provincial Superior Court in Kingston has served two injunctions, telling the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) to remove protesters and supporters if they deem removal to be necessary. The OPP have been seen in the area regularly, but have yet to make any moves toward removing protesters. The OPP claim that their stance as moderators and peacekeepers has not allowed them to arrest or remove any protesters to date.
The Algonquins have told the court that they will not participate in the injunction orders. Citing Ipperwash and Oka as examples, the Algonquins state that injunctions do not take the place of discussion. They have invited the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs to come and speak to them. As of this writing, this visit has not happened.
Frontenac Ventures Corp. has filed papers to sue the Algonquins and their supporters for $77 million dollars in "projected losses." They have also offered the government a way out of this issue: The mining company is willing to sell their staked land and business prospects in the area to the government. The starting price? $80 million. The Algonquins are planning to counter-sue both the mining company and the government for misuse of traditional lands.
The aim of the peaceful protest, demonstrators say, is to remain in the mining base camp until Dalton McGuinty calls a moratorium on uranium mining in Ontario. Many local councils have already passed resolutions against uranium mining through their own channels.
When Ottawa finally makes its move, those opposed to uranium mining worry that it may be all rain or all shine for Frontenac County, for Ottawa, for Kingston and all of the other towns and cities within uranium dust-blowing distance.
Update: On Saturday, September 22, two canoes were launched from the head of the Mississippi River in Ardoch, Ontario. They will travel to the Parliament buildings in Ottawa in order to demonstrate that the water systems connect and that, for the safety of all residents within air and water distance of the potential uranium mine, an immediate solution must be found.
Megan Hughes is the author of Me and My Bike: An Ontario motojournal
» Canadian Council for Nuclear Responsibility