Hunters in Nunavut say if the federal government overrides a recent uranium mining decision from the Nunavut Impact Review Board if will seriously erode the confidence of the Inuit in the regulatory system.
"This would be a political disaster for Nunavut, and for Canada," states the Kivalliq Wildlife Board in a letter they sent to the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development yesterday.
"Residents and institutions of Nunavut have spent considerable time and resources participating in the NIRB screening and review of Areva's proposal," states the letter, "If you reject the NIRB report and recommendation, residents of Nunavut will question what the point of their participation in this process was."
This spring, the Nunavut Impact Review Board issued its final report on a proposed uranium mine near Baker Lake. The report rejected Areva's proposed Kiggavik mine on the grounds that it lacks a definite start date and a development schedule. The review board concluded that without this information it was impossible to assess the environmental and social impacts of the uranium mine.
The French mining company Areva, has asked the minister of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development to reject that decision. And the region's hunters and trappers don't want to see that happen.
'Offensive to our organizations'
"For a company that says they are in support of Inuit organizations to turn around and ask for this was very offensive to our organizations," says Leah Muckpah, the regional coordinator of the Kivalliq Wildlife Board.
Muckpah says the hunters in Nunavut see the board's rejection of Areva's proposal as "a gain to the region." She says without a clear start date and a land use plan to protect the caribou calving ground, the risks of the project are too high.
"What will the situation of the caribou herd be in 20 years?" asks Ugo Lapointe, the Canada Program Coordinator of MiningWatch Canada, who says there is no way to predict the impact of the project without a clear start date.
Lapointe says this uranium mine project cannot be compared to other mining ventures such as the Hope Bay gold project, which was approved without a firm start date. Lapointe says although that project's start date was unclear, "It was not anticipating to start 10 to 20 years from its application, it was a matter of a few years."
"Also it didn't trigger the same level of concerns, environmental concerns, social concerns, with regards to the lands, to the water, to the resources, cultural practices," says Lapointe.
Lapointe also warns against the particular dangers associated with a uranium mine.
"Uranium mines are particular because they generate a lot of mining waste which contain radioactive materials that stay radioactive for generations to come."
Providing ongoing monitoring of the mining project is another issue identified in the Nunavut Impact Review Board's decision.
"The capacity to monitor, to do regulatory oversight of uranium mine impacts including radioactive waste, we're not ready, we're not ready in Nunavut," said Lapointe who adds that a recent commission in Quebec reached the same conclusion, in a larger province with a history of mining.
'Whatever industry wants they seem to be getting'
Critics say that if the minister bypasses the territorial review board it will send a negative message to the people of Nunavut by prioritizing business interests.
"I think there needs to be a balance in between development and assessment and environmental protections and right now, under the Harper Conservative government there is no balance,' says Hunter Tootoo, the Liberal party candidate for Nunavut. "It's just whatever industry wants they seem to be getting."
"It was our government that has improved the regulatory regime in the North while ensuring protection of our environment," said Leona Aglukkaq, the Conservative candidate in Nunavut in an email to the CBC, "The Liberals and NDP need to explain why they voted against regulatory legislation for Nunavut."
Minister Valcourt was contacted for comment on this story, but he did not respond to media requests.
The $2.1 billion project calls for one underground and four open-pit mines just west of Baker Lake.
Areva is in financial turmoil. With the declining market for uranium, even if the project gets the green light, mining may not start for another 10 to 20 years.