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The blockade was erected in the summer of 2007 to stop Frontenac Ventures from drilling for uranium on unceded First Nations territory.Photo: Megan Hughes
Algonquin community leader Robert Lovelace had never been charged with an offence, but when a uranium company began prospecting for radioactive ore on unceded First Nations land without engaging in consultation, he decided to take action and organized a non-violent blockade.
On February 15, Judge Cunningham of Ontario's Superior Court sentenced Lovelace to six months in jail for contempt of court and fined him $50,000 for his involvement in the peaceful protest.
Chief Paula Sherman, elected leader of the Ardoch Algonquin First Nation, a small community about 110 kilometres southwest of Ottawa, where the controversial uranium prospecting is taking place, calls Robert Lovelace "a political prisoner."
"It seems like a very heavy sentence," said Jamie Kneen of Mining Watch Canada, a non-governmental watchdog. "If the court had issued a trespassing charge, there could have been an argument about who was really trespassing."
The territory in question involves mainly Crown land that is subject to ongoing land-claim negotiations between First Nations and the provincial and federal governments.
In September 2007, an Ontario provincial court issued Frontenac Ventures, the mining company, an interlocutory injunction ordering protestors from Ardoch and Sharbot Lake First Nations, along with their non-native allies, to vacate the Robertsville camp. The camp is the only feasible entry point to a 30,000-acre wilderness tract in Frontenac County, where the company has its prospecting license. Lovelace and other activists violated that order.
"The source of this conflict is the Ontario Mining Act, which allows companies to stake land and prospect without consultation with private land owners or other users, including First Nations," said Kneen. Lovelace and other activists argue their constitutional rights were violated by the lack of consultation.
People living on or near the exploration site discovered their land was being taken almost two years ago. There were no community meetings or information sessions about the uranium exploration. "It started on private land when a cottager saw trees being cut and started protesting the development," said Kneen. A few months later it became clear that some of the land being staked was disputed territory.
"Uranium mining has no record other than environmental destruction and negative health issues," said Doreen Davis, chief of the Shabot Lake First Nation. "Uranium can't be stored safely," said Davis, who will be sentenced on March 18 for participating in the blockade. She is under court order not to talk about the dispute with Frontenac.
"I do know that we have communities from Kingston to Ottawa on our side against uranium mining in this district," said Davis. "A huge group of settlers, that's what they call themselves, have been working with us, pounding the pavement and educating people about this. I think it is unique to have aboriginal and non-aboriginal people standing shoulder-to-shoulder like this."
The federal government has yet to get involved in this case and Ontario's provincial government has only been reluctantly and peripherally involved, according to Kneen.
Not much is known about the company at the centre of the dispute. "Frontenac is a private company, so they don't have to file any disclosure," said Kneen. "Aside from the president and their lawyer, no one knows who they are or where they get their money."
The company's website has only one page and a press release. Frontenac's president, George White, did not return calls. The website says the company "is committed to participating in any efforts of Ontario and the First Nations' to consult in good faith," but Ardoch Chief Paula Sherman isn't convinced.
"No consideration was given to the circumstances leading to our actions," said Sherman in a statement following Lovelace's sentencing. "The testimony given under oath by Robert Lovelace outlined Algonquin Law and the corresponding responsibilities of Algonquin people with respect to human activity in our territory," wrote Sherman, who was fined $15,000 during the court case for breaking the injunction that prohibited protests on land being explored by Frontenac.
Because the company obtained a court order against protestors rather than filing trespassing charges, the judge was not required to consider arguments regarding historical precedent or Algonquin legal codes when making the decision. "It's a way of avoiding the core issues," said Kneen.
After a decade of low prices, the spot price of uranium has increased drastically in recent years, from $43 per pound in 2006, to $75 today.
As oil prices rise, countries have re-started old nuclear reactors and countries like South Africa, India and China have ambitious nuclear-power plans on the horizon. UBS, a financial services company, predicts uranium will hit $110 per pound by 2010.
These developments don't sit well with Dr. Mark Winfield, a Canadian nuclear expert. "Existing [uranium] mines in northern Saskatchewan have caused severe contamination through heavy metals like arsenic, and long-lived radionuclides, along with conventional pollutants," said Winfield.
In 2004, Health Canada concluded that effluent from uranium mines meets the definition of a toxic substance under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act.
Canada is the world's largest supplier of uranium and Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper wants to increase exports in his bid to transform the country into an "energy superpower."
"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was very clear that nuclear [energy] can't compete economically," said Winfield. "The potential health and environmental impacts of uranium mining are not worth the risks."
A version of this article appeared on Inter Press Service
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.