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Environmental Justice

by Julia Caron

My name is Julia Caron and I am currently finishing up my undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies and History at Trent University. Through the various events held by CCAMU and other organizations this year, as well as closely following the little media coverage this issue has received, I have come to my own opinions about what is going on with uranium mining in Eastern Ontario. I have done some of my own research, for my own interest and for some of my course work, into the current proposed uranium mine at Sharbot Lake and have many concerns about the way the situation has been handled. I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the background of the situation at Sharbot Lake, since I’m pretty sure that if people have taken the time to come out to this inquiry, they are already quite well informed about what has been going on.

Most of my understanding about environmental justice issues has come from reading work by writers such as Winona LaDuke, Jo-Anne Fiske, and Bonita Lawrence. All of these writers are Indigenous women, and are writing from a viewpoint that challenges colonialism. In my opinion, environmental problems are inseparable from other social injustices such as poverty, racism, sexism, unemployment, and the diminishing quality of life resulting from corporate activity. The unfortunate situation at Sharbot Lake is a current ongoing struggle that clearly demonstrates the interconnection of these issues. It also speaks to how those involved (Native communities, settlers, the provincial and federal governments, the corporations implicated and the mainstream media) have decided to respond to the immediate threat of environmental damage in very different ways. As many have probably spoken about, the land in question is predominantly located on unceded Native land.

Briefly, I will just speak to how I perceive the actions of the government of Ontario as underhanded and deceptive, as well as premeditated. On the website for the government of Ontario, one can quickly find a link to the ministry of Energy asserting that the push for nuclear energy is firstly warranted and necessary, and secondly, safe. From the website: “Nuclear energy is one part of the Ontario government’s balanced plan to ensure Ontario has a safe, clean, reliable and affordable supply of electricity in the years ahead.” By emphasizing the word “clean” throughout the literature and contextualizing the role that existing and operating nuclear power plants play in supplying energy to Ontario, the provincial government has tried to reassure its citizens that this is not only a good decision, but a necessary one, one which proves “our commitment to sustainability.”

So where do we find the opposition, and more importantly, the specific reasons for the opposition to uranium mining and nuclear energy? When we look at any conservation or environmentally conscious organization, or even the mainstream media coverage of the Sharbot Lake conflict in particular, a very different picture is painted than the one presented by the Ontario government. In all of the media coverage on CBC radio, television, online media, as well as that found in Arthur, Trent University’s Student and Community Newspaper, and other online sources, it is stated repeatedly that there are many serious dangers involved with mining uranium. From James Burrows article in Arthur: “The Native groups, as well as many local non-Native residents, are worried about possible environmental damage. Many Uranium mines utilize open pit mining techniques if the uranium deposits are close enough to the surface. The Native groups feel this would destroy their connection to the land and are seeking a moratorium on any prospecting in the area.”

This issue of the connection to the land is also examined in detail in LaDuke’s work around Native issues in the U.S. and Canada. The location of the proposed excavation site also has the potential for widespread harm in the Ontario region if not properly dealt with. Community members of Sharbot Lake argue that if Frontenac Ventures Corp. did not consult with them about a proposed excavation site that it is hard to believe they could be trusted to ensure the safety of the disposal of waste rock, and fear the impacts on their land and future generations.

In most environmental justice battles, communities have had to battle for the rights to the land that they thought they had prior to their government or a corporation took away from them. This issue has been complicated in the Sharbot Lake dispute, and in other disputes like it, because of the Native groups involved. Many Native groups and academics, particularly the Shabot Obdijiwan and Ardoch Algonquin, rightfully argue that their culture has more of a connection to the land because “a nurturing relationship with the natural world is essential to indigenous societies.” (LaDuke, 100) When we live in a world that tries to erase difference and treat us all as “equals,” this ignores important and factual differences between different peoples’ relationship to the land.

When Winona LaDuke delivered a lecture at Trent in 2003, as part of an "Environment and Conflict: Globalization and Resistance" conference, she spoke in more detail about how this issue specifically impacts Native groups. "Centralized power production based on fossil fuel and nuclear resources has served to centralize political power, dis-empower communities from responsibility and control over energy, and to create a vast wasteful system." Speaking to the links between energy corporations’ exploitation of First Nations and the unequal distribution of wealth and the legacy of colonialism, LaDuke “sees colonialism continuing today under the guise of 'globalization'... She noted that often the most biodiverse regions, such as rainforests, are also the most culturally diverse, and the home of many indigenous peoples.” LaDuke sees the democratization of power production as a key for First Nations’ self determination. When we witness a situation like the one at Sharbot Lake, it is clear that not even the white members of the community are consulted, let alone Native groups encouraged to self determine.

I will end with a quote from Richard Horfritcher: “Achieving environmental justice will require incorporating ecological issues into a larger social-justice agenda for change and considering alternative forms of economic development. That process begins with social planning that involves community residents more directly in economic development, land use, zoning, and other decisions now made with only residents’ token participation.” This is what we should have witnessed at Sharbot Lake to begin with, not after citizens’ called the actions of Frontenac Ventures into question. Instead, we witness blatant disrespect, and I would argue, racism towards Bob Lovelace and Paula Sherman. Thank you very much for your time.