MAC: Mines and Communities

First Nations blockade Highway 955 in protest

Published by MAC on 2004-08-31

First Nations blockade Highway 955 in protest

James Wood, The Leader-Post (Regina)

31st August 2004

A northern highway is under blockade by a First Nation that feels shut out of the economic spin-off from the $34-million project to decommission the Cluff Lake uranium mine.

The Clearwater River Dene Nation began its blockade of Hwy. 955 Friday evening with heavy machinery and emergency lights on reserve land near the village of La Loche, which is supporting the civil disobedience.

Chief Roy Cheechum said only local traffic will be allowed to go north until Cogema Resources Inc., the owners of the mine, give assurances that local people will receive a "fair share of jobs and contract work."

"This is the last major work for our area around here ... there is no mine that is going to start up in the foreseeable future over here. So when you have a high unemployment situation i La Loche and lesser unemployment here but still very high, and when we have an opportunity like that, we have to take every and full advantage of that in an equitable way.

We don't want the whole show, we don't want all of the contracts but we certainly want all of the positions when it comes to labourers and heavy equipment operators," he said in an interview from his home Monday.

Cheechum said two area companies, one owned by the First Nation, did not win their bid for a contract on the project. The band was negotiating with Cogema on subcontracting work or employment positions, he said, but chose to set up the blockade last week after supply trucks for the project began heading north.

For now, the RCMP, the provincial government and Cogema are taking a non-confrontational approach to the peaceful blockade.

John Tosney, Cogema's executive vice-president, said the company hopes to work with Clearwater River to come up with a satisfactory solution.

"We are facilitating the evaluation by the contractor of the resumes we've now been given. So we are considering, the contractor is, what workers are available, who wants to work, what skills they have and so on," he said.

Tosney said contracts for the decommissioning were awarded to northwest Saskatchewan businesses. Cogema has also mandated that 60 per cent of the workforce for the project is made up of northern workers from the "impact area" for the Cluff Lake mine.

However, that area is large and made up of about 15 communities, he pointed out.

"Unfortunately, the simple truth is there are simply not enough jobs to go around for all those people who might require work," he said.

Over the two years of the decommissioning project, the number of workers will vary between 60 and 100.

The Cluff Lake mine is about 700 km northwest of Saskatoon. La Loche and Clearwater River are about 240 km south of the mine, with no major communities between them and the mine.

While the province is trying to bring the two sides together to find a resolution, the First Nation is also taking issue with the government for leasing commercial, residential and industrial property in the band's "traditional area" without proper consultation.

"We want a freeze on these leases that are being given out now and we want to strike a co-management board with ourselves, the community of La Loche and other communities near us and the provincial government," he said, adding that he wants to meet with Northern Affairs Minister Buckley Belanger and Environment Minister David Forbes. Richard Turkheim, executive director of resource and industry development with the Department of Northern Affairs, said the government will consider what Clearwater and La Loche have to say about the leases.

He defended the measured approach taken by the government and RCMP while acknowledging that some travelers with no connection to the Cluff Lake mine may be hindered by the blockade.

"Sometimes the risks of escalation and of the result of what I might call a 'jackboot' response can be worse than the disruption and the temporary frustration of this kind of demonstration.

Each case ... has been assessed very carefully on a case-by-case basis and we have the support of the RCMP to do it that way," said Turkheim.

La Loche Mayor Georgina Jolibois said unemployment rates as high as 90 per cent for her village led the village council to give moral support to the blockade.

"The local pressure we received to support it was enormous," she said.

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