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Concerns over uranium mining prompt Nunavut to take the issue to the people Add to ...

The tiny, remote community of Grise Fiord on the frozen shores of Ellesmere Island is nearly as far as it gets from the giant uranium mine proposed for the southern tundra near Baker Lake.

But that didn't stop 46 people in the community from signing a petition tabled in the legislature last summer demanding a public inquiry over the project. Five other Nunavut communities tabled similar petitions.

They didn't get their inquiry. But Premier Eva Aariak has announced a unique series of public forums across the territory for later this year to discuss whether uranium mining is something Nunavut really wants.

"This is a very good reason why we're doing these public forums - to find out how big of an issue it is," Ms. Aariak said. "From there, we can engage in a policy decision after we hear from the public."

Last spring, the regulatory process began for the $1.5-billion Kiggavik project, a uranium mine proposed for just west of Baker Lake by French uranium giant Areva. It is the first such mine to come before the Nunavut Impact Review Board and the first proposed for the wildlife-rich Thelon Basin, home to major caribou herds.

With at least a dozen other major uranium projects in the pipeline for the area, how the board balances Kiggavik's effects on hunting and the environment with the need for jobs will define the so-called barren lands for a generation. The debate has engaged the entire territory.

"What's at stake is who we are," said Sandra Inutiq of the Iqaluit-based anti-uranium group Nunavummiut Makitagunarningit, which sponsored the petitions.

She fears that the territory, which is in the process of writing its uranium policy, has already decided to support the mine.

An inquiry, with its more formal procedures, would have allowed for closer questioning of officials and testimony from experts. A series of forums simply won't do the job, Ms. Inutiq said.

"It leaves a lot of room for an agenda-driven process," she said. "The government seems to be on a path of going ahead with that kind of development."

Ms. Inutiq said her group may not even take part in the forums.

But Ms. Aariak said town hall-type forums - at least three of them in different regions of Nunavut - will be less intimidating and more likely to yield grassroots opinion.

"A public forum would have more people involved in voicing their opinion," she said, adding that similar forums have been used for other public policy issues in Nunavut.

"An inquiry is more restrained in the process. It is more formal, would take longer and is much more rigid."

Technical experts will be welcome, but she points out those issues will be aired during the review board hearings.

"We want facts, but we also want opinion," Ms. Aariak said.

Ms. Inutiq said the review hearings are already compromised by the limited funds that have been granted for intervener groups to marshal their evidence. The federal government has allotted a total $250,000 to be divided among at least 10 different interveners.

"It doesn't even allow enough funding for people who are specialized for legal opinions," Ms. Inutiq said. "We couldn't even hire anybody.

"Here you have a huge company who can hire whoever to write their proposals and what the grassroots get is basically peanuts."

Areva spokesman Barry McCallum said his company supports Ms. Aariak's decision.

"The environmental impact assessment is a very appropriate process to determine whether the project should proceed," he said. "This public forum will give the rest of the territory a chance to ask questions.

"We'd be happy to participate."

Mr. McCallum, however, isn't surprised that his company's project is the first development ever to provoke a series of public forums as well as regulatory hearings.

"Gold and diamonds are seen as routine minerals to mine. Uranium is seen as special. We see it all over the country and we're seeing some of that in Nunavut."

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