Northern exposure

For decades, Joan Scottie has spearheaded resistance to uranium mining in Canada’s North


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A formidable problem mining in Canada’s Arctic has been facing is not below ground but above it — a resolute granny named Joan Scottie.

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A formidable problem mining in Canada’s Arctic has been facing is not below ground but above it — a resolute granny named Joan Scottie.

The Inuit elder in Nunavut’s Baker Lake is not just a thorn in the side of the mining industry, she’s the whole bush.

Since the 1980s, Scottie has fought zealously to keep uranium mining out of her North and the results are legendary: twice her community has defeated powerful people and their proposals to mine very rich and radioactive deposits of uranium.

“Our experiences show that a small group of Indigenous people can stand up to the global nuclear industry and win,” Scottie says.

But the battle continues, has even heated up since her Inuit-majority territory was created by carving up the Northwest Territories to create Nunavut, a government that favours uranium mining under, it says, strict environmental conditions, although nobody has yet taken advantage of the opportunity.

In the meantime, says Scottie, the search for uranium deposits and other minerals in her North has for decades threatened the well-being of one of their most valued natural resource — the caribou — and still does. She explains that the animals that inhabit the Arctic are an important part of Inuit traditions and central to their hunting culture that is so linked to the land and the nourishment they get from it. Scottie too goes hunting for the animal that has provided food and clothing for Inuit since time began.

“Mining and exploration activity can negatively affect the caribou. The low-flying helicopters, the noise from drilling, and the noise and dust from roads can cause herds to scatter, change their migrations, or even cause their populations to decline.”

A lot of I Will Live for Both of Us relies on research previously done by Warren Bernauer, a geographer, and Jack Hicks, a social scientist.

“Most of the book was originally drafted by Warren and Jack; however, we each played a role in shaping its direction,” Scottie says. “As such, even though it is written from my perspective, it is truly a collaborative project.”

Scottie also is a passionate critic of the colonialism that still exists in the North and the mental hangover of inferiority that comes from being told for generations that people other than Inuit are smarter and know what’s best for them.

Recalling a bizarre workshop in 1989 staged by the federal government and a German company proposing to mine uranium, Scottie explains “Both Urangesellschaft (the company) and the government spoke to residents of Baker Lake as if we were stupid.”

Scottie says the Inuit knew that uranium mining had been banned elsewhere, so when the German company and the government were telling them “there was absolutely nothing for us to worry about, we knew that they were taking us for fools.”

But what astonished Inuit the most in this workshop, Scottie remembers, was the company’s seemingly cavalier attitude to the storage of the radioactive tailings that would be the result of their mining. She says the company’s plan “was to simply leave 50 million tonnes of radioactive waste on the surface of the tundra and let it freeze.”

By 1969 the Baker Lake area was overrun by uranium search parties. “As a result of all this activity, the caribou herds started to change their migration routes. Soon, our hunters had difficulty catching enough caribou to feed their families. Our community decided to fight back.”

Scottie explains that when Nunavut was created in 1999, she believed it would give Inuit more power over themselves. However, she says, “I am very disappointed with the outcome… particularly its influence on mineral exploration and mining. Despite provisions for environmental protection, we still experience significant negative effects to our environment and our hunting way of life.”

Bernauer is a postdoctoral fellow at the Natural Resources Institute and the department of environment and geography at the University of Manitoba. Hicks was with Inuit organizations and the Nunavut government for over 30 years and now works for First Nations groups in B.C.

Scottie was born and raised the traditional way — in a camp on the tundra. But when their mother injured her back and needed treatment in Baker Lake, Joan and her brother and sister went with her. They attended federal day school there. And when their mother contracted tuberculosis and was sent to a southern sanatorium, Scottie had no guardian and had to move into the school hostel, along with her siblings.

“I really hated living at the hostel,” Scottie recalls. “I cried often. My strongest memory of being there was being hungry all the time. It seemed that every meal was porridge, which was not enough for me after growing up on the land with a healthy diet of caribou meat.”

Scottie recalls an incident at the school when she heard a boy screaming and crying, and found her brother being beaten by a teacher with a yardstick.

“I was so mad but there was nothing I could do to stop it.”

After the teacher and her brother left, Scottie collected every yardstick in the school, broke them and piled the mess on the offending teacher’s desk as a message.

Some time before the creation of Nunavut, Barry Craig was chief of public affairs for the government of the Northwest Territories.

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