Clearwater River Dene Nation blocks ‘business as usual’ access to uranium fields

Sask. ministry of environment promises more consultation on uranium development as tensions rise over access to traditional lands

The Cluff Lake project operated from 1980 to 2002 and was the first modern uranium mine to be fully decommissioned in Saskatchewan. Photo courtesy of Orano Canada

The Clearwater River Dene Nation (CRDN) in northwest Saskatchewan has put up a security checkpoint on a section of Highway #955 that runs through its reserve to uranium rich areas north of the community.

The checkpoint is in response to the Government of Saskatchewan’s ongoing granting of approvals to uranium exploration companies that the CRDN says is being done without any meaningful consultation with the First Nation or consent from Elders, trappers and community members.

“The Government of Saskatchewan ran roughshod over the rights of the Dene People in this region for decades,” CRDN Chief Teddy Clarke said in a statement. 

“The issuance of uranium mineral rights and granting of exploration permits and approvals of damaging uranium mines by the (province) all occurred without our People’s meaningful involvement, participation or consent. This pattern of unacceptable behaviour must come to an end, now.”

The First Nation said community members are worried about how a spike in on the ground uranium exploration and airborne activity will impact moose, caribou and migratory bird nesting areas at an important time of the year when young are being born.

“Governments allowed destructive uranium projects like the Gunnar Mine to go ahead — that is now a toxic uranium legacy. They approved the Cluff Lake (Orano) uranium mine to the north of us and our people have mostly left the area due to their fears over radioactive contamination and as our cultural connection to the area was broken,” CRDN Band Manager Walter Hainault said.

“We now have two major uranium mines being proposed in one of our Nation’s most culturally important and vital areas – the Patterson Lake Area. All this starts with the (province) granting uranium mineral tenures, rights and exploration permits in the absence of meaningful consultation or sound analysis of its impacts on our rights, culture or People. Our people are kind, patient and have shown good will, but that patience is running out.”  

CRDN also said the level of activity is negatively impacting families who are on the land at this time in their camps and cabins — seeking a safe haven amid the pandemic — and the checkpoint is also there to protect families that could be impacted. 

The CRDN has experienced some of the highest rates of COVID-19 exposure and infection among First Nations in Canada. The First Nation contends that allowing uranium exploration and development work to “proceed on a business-as-usual basis” puts their community’s health and well-being at risk.

First Nations and Métis have rights to hunt, fish, trap for food, and carry out traditional uses on Crown land or public water bodies — and the province said it acknowledges those rights.

The Saskatchewan Ministry of Environment said in a written response that the province is “committed to fulfilling its duty to consult with Indigenous peoples” on decisions or actions that may impact the exercise of those rights.

The ministry said it is committed to “meaningful consultation as a part of uranium exploration, permitting and environmental assessment processes.”

“The ministry recognizes that lands of interest for uranium exploration have been used traditionally by Indigenous people,” the ministry said.

“It should also be noted that mining contributes significantly to the economy in northern Saskatchewan, including partnerships with First Nations and Métis communities and employment opportunities for northern residents.”

The ministry said the province will “continue discussions with Clearwater River Dene Nation to better understand its concerns with respect to local exploration for uranium mining” and that the government is “committed to ensuring the province’s duty to consult process is respected and adhered to.”

“The Saskatchewan government’s First Nation and Métis Consultation Policy Framework articulates the policy that guides its actions in fulfilling this important obligation,” the ministry said.   

“Exploration permits issued by the ministry include a specific condition that requires companies to report caribou sightings and to allow the caribou to pass undisturbed.”  

This condition means that a caribou sighting will essentially halt work until the animals have passed beyond the work area.  The province said companies generally commit to do their work outside of sensitive time periods like the calving and nesting seasons. 

“Any permitted activities must follow all public health guidelines or be delayed until they can be completed in accordance with the public health guidelines,” the ministry said. 

“The pandemic has created challenges for both consultation and ongoing operations, with some activities needing to be adapted or curtailed entirely.”  

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), representing 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, shares Chief Clarke’s  concerns.

 “The strength of our people lies within the culture and traditions that are taught and passed on through the generations.  Teachings that come from our lands and waters” FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron said. 

“The Dene people have Inherent and Treaty Rights to live on and use these lands and waters as their ancestors have for generations.  Our Treaty Rights trump provincial laws and we will continue to fight with Chief Clarke and the Dene people to ensure that these lands and waters are here for the generations to come.”

The CRDN feels that the Security Checkpoint is needed given the amount of uranium exploration activity now underway and that the community said they have  little to no knowledge of the third parties entering their lands — “conducting activities harmful to land, water, animals and the CRDN People.”

The CRDN said it has started community-based research involving Elders, trappers and community members that exercise their rights and practice their culture in the Patterson Lake Area.

The First Nation has retained a Vancouver-based law firm that has represented Indigenous people and governments in regulatory proceedings, including litigation and conflicts with the Crown and industry.

“The CRDN will not permit what happened in the past to occur again and they will use all means at their disposal to protect the treaty rights, culture and interests of the CRDN Elders, trappers and people,”  Clarke said. 

“Our Elders, trappers, community members and youth will have the last say over the way the land is used and how it is left for the future generations.”