Lutselk'e shocked by chief's support of Ur-Energy exploration
Last Updated: Thursday, September 3, 2009 | 11:40 AM CT
Some residents in Lutselk'e, N.W.T., were surprised Wednesday to hear their leadership is supporting a uranium company that's exploring for uranium in the Upper Thelon area.
Members of the Lutselk'e Dene First Nation, which has long opposed uranium mining there, say they were shocked when Chief Steve Nitah told CBC News the First Nation signed an agreement allowing Ur-Energy Inc. to conduct a small exploration project this summer at its Screech Lane property, just south of the Thelon Game Sanctuary.
Local elders were reportedly approaching Nitah on the street, seeking clarification on his position, following his interview on the CBC Radio program The Trailbreaker Wednesday morning.
No one in Lutselk'e who was contacted by CBC News wanted to speak on the record about the chief's apparent change of heart, but several said most people in the community still oppose any development in the Upper Thelon.
Nitah and officials with Ur-Energy were not available for comment Wednesday.
In the past, Dene leaders in Lutselk'e have strongly opposed development there, saying it is such a culturally and spritually significant place that it should not be exposed to the risks associated with uranium mining.
'Was this guy acting alone?'
Nitah's remarks also surprised people elsewhere in the Northwest Territories.
"My initial reaction was, 'Was this guy acting alone, or did he talk to the other people at the First Nation level or at the Akaitcho level?' Going at it alone is going to create a lot of problems," said Tom Unka, a former environment manager with the Deninu Kue First Nation in Fort Resolution, N.W.T.
Unka said Nitah and other Lutselk'e delegates walked out of a workshop held earlier this year to start developing a land-use plan for the Upper Thelon.
Unka, who was also at the workshop, said the Luselk'e delegation protested the involvement of two aboriginal groups that had called for development to be allowed in the area.
A previous attempt by Ur-Energy to explore at Screech Lake was rejected by Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl in 2007, mostly because of strong opposition from people in Lutselk'e.
Other groups claim interest
Strahl's decision was based on a recommendation from the Mackenzie Valley Environmental Impact Review Board, which ruled that drilling in the Upper Thelon basin would have unacceptable cultural and spiritual impacts on the Lutselk'e Dene, whose ancestors have hunted in the area for thousands of years.
News that Ur-Energy is once again trying to advance its Screech Lake property has caught the attention of the North Slave Métis Alliance and other groups claiming an interest in the Thelon area.
"I would suggest that they take the same approach with the North Slave Métis as they have with the Lutselk'e Indian Band, which is to inform our members about the pros and cons of having a uranium mine in our backyard," said Alliance president Bill Enge.
Lutselk'e residents have been apprehensive about uranium mining for good reason: toxic waste tailings from a uranium project there in the 1950s were reportedly dumped into nearby Stark Lake.
People in the area have said that as a result, fish in the lake have since become deformed and infested with parasites.
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