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'I'm angry': Cree man can't use trapline, blames debris prospectors left behind

An abandoned prospecting camp on John Rupert's trapline near Whapmagoostui includes some 300 barrels, 100 old propane tanks, heavy machinery and 14 decaying cabins. Efforts are underway to clean up abandoned mineral exploration sites across Eeyou Istchee James Bay territory.

'It doesn't feel right to hunt,' says John Rupert who hasn't harvested on his trapline since 2006

'They were closing their eyes because it's very far and nobody was going to see it,' said Youcef Larbi, director general of the Cree Mineral Exploration Board. There are at least 218 abandoned mineral exploration sites across Eeyou Istchee James Bay territory, according to the Quebec government. (submitted by John Rupert)

John Rupert hasn't fished or harvested animals on his trapline near the Cree community of Whapmagoostui since 2006 — the year prospectors set up camp. 

When those prospectors packed up two years later, they left behind a mess that is still there today. 

"I'm not hunting there since then ... it doesn't feel right to hunt," said Rupert, 66.  

Prospectors left behind 300 fuel barrels, 100 old propane tanks and heavy machinery. There are also 14 decaying cabins, along with old fridges, insulation and other equipment, he says. 

Full of diesel

'I want to be able to go back,' said John Rupert, 66. The Whapmagoostui tallyman hasn't hunted on his trapline since 2006, the year a prospecting camp moved in. (submitted by Sheila Rupert)

Rupert says more than 20 barrels are still full of diesel fuel and he sees oil and other chemicals leaking into the surrounding dirt and water. 

"I'm angry sometimes," said Rupert. "They didn't even ask permission." 

What the prospectors were looking for is not entirely clear. Rupert says they told him they were from Strateco resources and they were looking for uranium. 

The company, which was actively looking farther south in Cree territory at the time, says it was not prospecting anywhere near Rupert's trapline some 60 kilometres southeast of Whapmagoostui. 

More likely, according to Youcef Larbi, director general and chief geologist with the Cree Mineral Exploration Board, the prospectors were looking for iron ore and abandoned the camp in 2008 because the prices were too low and Whapmagoostui was too expensive a place to prospect in as a fly-in-only community.  

Old barrels and propane tanks litter John Rupert's trapline near Whapmagoostui, Que. (submitted by John Rupert)

In 2018, the Quebec Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources, pegged the number of abandoned mineral exploration sites across Eeyou Istchee at 218, including everything from a single can of oil, to prospecting camps like Rupert's, to actual mines.

However, the Ministry says an exact number won't be known until after a full inventory currently underway is complete.   

Rupert's trapline is on the list to be cleaned up, according to Larbi. He says many of the others are not as bad as Rupert's, but some are much, much worse.

They are the echoes of an industry that for many years didn't have a lot of rules or obligations to clean up, Larbi said.

"The legislation from the government back then wasn't very tight," he said, adding that it was already better in 2006 than it had been. 

"They were closing their eyes because it's very far and nobody was going to see it." 

Some 14 prospecting cabins have been decaying on John Rupert's trapline since a prospecting camp was abandoned in 2008. (submitted by John Rupert)

Rupert's trapline is on what the Cree call Category 3 land, where even today, Larbi said prospecting can be difficult to control. 

In 2010, the Cree Nation Government adopted a mining policy requiring prospectors get the permission of tallymen, or Cree land stewards, like Rupert. In 2002, the Cree also created Larbi's group — the Cree Mineral Exploration Board — with the mandate to improve local expertise in exploration, act as a bridge between the industry and Cree, and to educate.  

I want to be able to go back.​​​- John Rupert, Whapmagoostui tallyman

In 2018, Quebec and Cree governments, along with the Eeyou-Istchee James Bay Regional government and the Fonds Restor-Action Cri — a mining industry group committed to helping clean up abandoned sites — signed an $11 million agreement to restore the abandoned sites in Eeyou Istchee. 

Of the $11 million, $300,000 is coming from industry and the rest is coming from various levels of government. The cleanup work is set to begin in 2020 and continue until 2029. 

In 2013, the Quebec government made changes to the Mining Act, requiring companies put cleanup money in a trust before a mining project gets a green light, but it is unclear what obligations exist for prospecting camps. 

Equipment and insulation inside one of 14 old prospecting cabins near Whapmagoostui, Que. (submitted by John Rupert)

All of this is cold comfort for tallyman John Rupert, who says he won't feel comfortable harvesting on his trapline until it is cleaned up and soil and water tests prove to him it is safe. 

CBC News requested information from the Cree Nation Government regarding specific plans to clean up Rupert's trapline, but didn't receive information in time for publication.

"I want it to be cleaned as soon as possible and [there to be] samples on land and of the water," said Rupert. 

"I want to be able to go back." 
The equipment abandoned on John Rupert's trapline include heavy machinery. Whapmagoostui is the only Cree community accessible only by air. (submitted by John Rupert)