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Story Publication logo August 11, 2013

Nunavut: From Caribou to Uranium

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All around the Arctic Ocean, the impact of climate change is spectacular:Icecaps melt, glaciers...

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© Guillaume Herbaut / INSTITUTE for Le Monde. Greenland, 2013.

This article was originally published in French in the print version of Le Monde. It is part 3 of a special 6-part summer series. See the full multi-media feature online.

KIGGAVIK, Canada—Kiggavik consists of several dozen barracks and tents located in an isolated section of the tundra. The terrain is rugged, covered in grass and lichen and permanently waterlogged. It's the middle of June and snow is still visible in places. The nearest village of Baker Lake is about 80 kilometers to the east. To get here in the winter, you ride snowmobiles or drive in trucks on an ice road, but when the snow melts, the only transport is by helicopter. Thirty-five men and women are moving in for the summer. Kiggavik, a Canadian subsidiary of the French conglomerate Areva, is a prospecting camp. It sits on a well-known but unexploited uranium deposit. If all goes according to plan, authorities will give the go-ahead for Areva to begin work in 2015. The company plans to dig an open pit mine and build an ore processing plant close by to produce "yellowcake," a concentrated form of uranium used to manufacture nuclear fuel. In the meantime, Areva continues its prospecting operations in a 15 kilometer radius, in the hope of finding other deposits.

In a corner of the camp, samples from previous years are stored out in the open, stacked on shelves. When you approach with a sensor that detects radioactivity, the machine starts to crackle, but the camp geologist assures us that it's not dangerous because the uranium content present in the minerals is very low. That said, everyone here wears a radiation detecting badge around his neck.

Today, the team is preparing to drill a new area on a hill 1.5 kilometers from camp. The machinery is transported there by helicopter, suspended by ropes. The drillers are from southern Canada, but soon they will be joined by two Inuits from Arviak, a village on the Hudson Bay shore. The Inuit represent more than 80 percent of the region's population, and Areva is committed to hiring local labor. Erik Okatsiak, 28, is married and has five children. He was picked from hundreds of candidates for a two-month paid internship, and hopes to become an assistant driller.

"They picked me because I did well on a motivational test. There's no work in Arviak, so all my pals applied. I was lucky."

Erick says he knows about exposure to radiation, but he's not worried. He trusts his colleagues, who have been working in the uranium mining industry for a long time and they all appear healthy.

"My family is very happy, no one in my circle said 'don't go there, it's dangerous.' In fact, no one ever mentions that aspect of my work."

His colleague and friend, 26-year-old Hunter Tattuinee, father of two children, has already been promoted to assistant driller. Previously he worked in the gold and diamond mines and sees little difference here.

"The drilling company that hired me to work with Areva warned me of possible risks, but I didn't hesitate for one second. I wanted to make a living and at the same time see something new. The mine is the future of Nunavut. My people are finally on the right track."

Eric and Hunter work seven days a week for several weeks before getting time off, which is spent fishing and hunting.

However, 80 kilometers east in Baker Lake, not everyone is convinced of the benefits of uranium mining. The town of 1,800 residents, stretching along a lake that is still frozen in mid-June, has long opposed the nuclear industry. In 1990, a German company submitted a proposal to exploit the deposit at Kiggavik but was opposed by 90 percent of the people in a local referendum.

Not long after, Areva acquired the German company and relaunched the project in 2006. The company set up an office in the center of town, in a modest blue-painted house. It's here that they anchor a massive public relations operation run by Barry McCallum, a Canadian from Nova Scotia and veteran of the nuclear industry.

When speaking to prominent local citizens and various associations, Barry has plenty of pro-uranium talking-points.

"The mine will generate 450 to 600 jobs for a 12-year period, perhaps double if new deposits are found. Initially, 25 percent of the labor force will be hired locally. Later, training programs will allow us to increase that percentage. All told, we will be investing $5.5 billion in the project, including $165 million to restore the site after the mine is decommissioned."

The final decision will be made by the Nunavut Impact Review Board, composed of eight people appointed by the federal government, the territorial government and an Inuit organization. That said, Areva knows that the opinion of the locals also matters. To that end, the company recruited a dozen "community liaison agents," former elected officials, local artists, and township leaders, to spread the good word. A second group of his supporters is composed of people who attend the public forums, for which they are paid a few hundred dollars each time. Those who merely make an appearance at the meetings also receive money or gifts.

"People won't come to the meetings voluntarily, explains Barry McCallum. If we don't pay them, they're not well attended."

Moreover, Areva pays the village elders for their "traditional wisdom"—their knowledge of Inuit customs and habits, and life in the tundra. Additionally, the company regularly takes residents of Baker Lake to the uranium mines in the neighboring province of Saskatchewan—to show them how the projects are run, and how the miners are happy and in good health.

In fact, Baker Lake is already within a mining zone. In 2009, the Quebecois company Agnico-Eagle opened a gold mine in Meadowbank, 110 kilometers to the north. It presently employs 165 Baker Lake residents, accounting for $12 million a year in salaries. The mine also subcontracts some operations to local businesses, whose owners have become unconditional supporters of the Areva project.

Peter Tapatai, manager of a freight company, works for Agnico Eagle, and from time to time at the Kiggavik site.

"Before the gold mine opened, 70 percent of the inhabitants were unemployed. Today, anyone looking for work will find a job and be well paid. It's not just money we earn here. The mine gives us a sense of pride, something people don't have a lot of around here. The children admire their Dad when he goes to work in the mine."

Glenn McLean, a southern Canadian who remade his life here, owns a transport business that employs 60 people. In the past he worked for Areva, then he made his money on the gold mine, thanks to a profitable financial partnership. He also works in the construction industry.

"In three years I built 10 houses here, six of them for miners."

He is also one of the eight committee members in charge of issuing permits for the uranium mines. Considering his past ties with Areva, he recused himself from the position, but in his view, the situation is simple:

"By 2017, the gold deposit will be exhausted, and if Areva takes over, everything will be fine. If not, we'll have no mine and hardship will return."

That said, the impact of the gold mine has not been all good. Chief of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Baker Lake, Corporal Jonathan Saxby, 38, has a dismal opinion of the present situation.

"Before the gold mine opened, we were getting 600 call-outs a year for assault and sexual abuse linked to alcohol consumption. Once the mine opened, the calls increased to 1,500, though the population remained constant. His explanation is simple.

"The mine pays its workers well, but a lot of them don't know how to manage their money. They buy drugs and alcohol and waste the rest on useless items."

Cpl. Saxby also points out that the population of Baker Lake is in bad shape: obesity, tooth decay from childhood, a suicide rate that is 10 times higher than the Canadian average. Money from the mine didn't fix any of these problems. He is apprehensive about Areva coming here.

"We'll see an increase in crime rate, which will be hard for us."

Some of the gold mine employees don't hesitate to express their discontent, on condition of anonymity. L., a construction equipment driver, spends a lot of his free time in one of the village cafeterias, an extension to the supermarket—where KFC and Pizza Hut food is sold at exorbitant prices. L. makes a good salary, but his life as a miner troubles him.

"I spend weeks at a time confined down there, far from my family. This is alien to our culture. I would prefer to work in town, even with less pay, but there's no work here."

He isn't convinced that the mining industry is a good thing for his region.

"We extract enormous amounts of earth and rocks to recover tiny quantities of gold. It's crazy."

But he has resigned himself to the situation.

"If the uranium mine does open, I would prefer not to go there, I'm sure it's dangerous. But if there's no other work here after 2017, I will go."

Despite Areva's efforts, a defiant attitude still exists in the village. Opponents to the mine have rallied around the Hunters and Trappers Organization (HTO), who are fighting to preserve the territories' untamed wilderness as well as the traditional Inuit lifestyle. HTO's local official, Hugh Ikoe, 62, who was raised on the land, speaks of the importance of caribou to community life.

"The people here, especially the poorest, go hunting to feed themselves. Caribou is their only source of fresh meat. Hunting is also a fundamental element of our culture, past and present."

He fears that the caribou, and as a result, the people, are in danger of being poisoned by the uranium mine.

"Areva wants to dump the nuclear waste in disused mines shafts, but this technique has never been tried before in the Far North. They tell us the waste will be frozen by the permafrost, which will stabilize it. But what happens if global warming increases?"

Ikoe also worries about the construction of roads, ports, airports, dams and other infrastructure that will disturb the countryside and the lives of both man and animal.

In a corner of the office, HTO hosts the anti-nuclear organization Makita ("move it" in English), which receives support from authorities and some anti-nuclear activists in southern Canada, but not enough to pay for its own office space. Makita is run by Joan Scottie, an activist of long standing.

"Here in Baker Lake we are surrounded by 30 prospecting and exploration sites, 12 of them for uranium. If we say yes to Areva, it will be politically impossible to say no to any future mining requests. We would effectively be swallowed up by the nuclear industry."

After decades of fighting, she seems to have lost her optimism.

"The proposal presented by Areva is a 10,000-page document, crammed with numbers and technical data. We have neither the time nor the expertise to study it properly."

She is no longer sure that she can win this battle of ideas.

"Among the young people of Baker Lake, the poorest and the least educated are more concerned about the economy than about preserving nature. It's easy to dupe them with little gifts and promises."

Angela Cook, 43 who works for the public housing repair service, voices her opposition to the project whenever she gets the opportunity. Angela and her husband Moses are hunters and proud of it. To enter their house you have to straddle the un-skinned leg of a caribou, left outside for the dogs.

"The Areva people tell us there is no danger to the caribou, but that's impossible. They are arrogant and condescending, they think we don't understand radiation. They pretend to admire our culture, but that's not true, you can see it in their eyes."

Angela has sat in on several public informational meetings.

"I lost my cool, said too much, but the audience clapped."

She's convinced that the majority of the population is opposed to the project, but points out that the prominent citizens have taken over the debate.

"The businessmen talk as if they are elected by the people. It's crazy. They don't bother to consider the disappearance of the caribou or the children with cancer when they're counting their money. If I wasn't working, I would pitch my tent on the Kiggavik site, just to annoy them."

Her 23-year-old son Alex, who studies business in Nova Scotia, joins his mom in the battle with Areva.

"I knew nothing about uranium, so I researched it online and saw a lot of negative things. If I could, I would vote against the project, but no one asks for my opinion."

He believes the mine will create a lot of problems.

"Let's be frank, no Inuit is capable of managing a uranium mine. As usual, we'll be given the inferior jobs."

Nevertheless, he still retains the optimism of his youth. "The people will catch on and grasp the madness of this whole affair. The people need to vote on this."

The idea is catching on. The mayor of Baker Lake, Joe Aupaluktuq, who was critical of the Areva project during his electoral campaign in 2012, is trying to convince the town council to hold a referendum.

"It would have no legal standing, but it would carry an important symbolic weight."

He won't tell people how to vote and tries to imagine a compromise.

"I would support Areva if they were happy with just mining the uranium and dropped their plans to build a milling plant, which is much more hazardous."

Then he reconsiders. "This isn't a perfect solution, but I have to consider the voters' opinions. I have a feeling that many of them would like the money from the mine—but without the mine."

Translation by Anne Thurow

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