The battle over uranium mining in northern Quebec is heating up again.
Strateco Resources Inc. petitioned a Quebec court on Dec. 5, seeking to force the province's environmental minister to allow underground uranium exploration at the company's Matoush project, located in the Otish mountains 200 kilometres northeast of Mistissini.
Quebec's Minister of Sustainable Development, the Environment, Wildlife and Parks had denied Strateco's permit on Nov. 7 after the local Mistissini Cree community refused to consent to uranium development near its hunting grounds and trap lines.
"Many Cree work in the mining industry; we are not anti-development," said Cree Grand Chief Matthew Coon Come.
"But uranium is a special case. The tailings will remain toxic for hundreds of thousands of years. It is a burden for future generations that we are not prepared to assume."
Strateco's CEO, Guy Herbert, said the Matoush project is crucial to the development of the company's assets in northern Quebec. He estimated that the project could produce 30 million pounds of some of the highest-grade uranium in the world – worth roughly $1.7-billion at current market prices – and channel $800-million to Quebec over 10 years.
He said the company has invested almost $125-million in the project since 2006 and obtained 22 permits from the environmental ministry. He said the authorization at issue now would be the final hurdle in its protracted fight to move the project forward.
"We have the law on our side," Mr. Herbert said. "This is public land. … We have the right in Quebec to mine uranium."
But the Cree view Strateco's legal wrangling as a last-ditch attempt to undermine their rights under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement of 1975.
While the Matoush project is located on provincial territory, its disposition still requires Cree consultation under the treaty, said a lawyer for the Cree, Jessica Orkin of Sack Goldblatt Mitchell in Toronto.
The treaty also created an elaborate environmental review process, the first of its kind in Canada, and the minister must consider a number of factors, including both Cree input and the rights of resource developers, in approving any mining projects under its jurisdiction.
The minister's Nov. 7 decision stated that the lack of social acceptance by the local Cree communities was "obvious and determinative" in denying Strateco's permit.
Strateco has maintained that its interests and prior investments were ignored. It will be back in court on Jan. 24, 2014 to argue its motion.
Whatever happens there, Mr. Herbert said the company doesn't intend to walk away from Matoush. "If the court decides against us, we will seek damages and lost profits for our investors."
Uranium is used as a fuel in the production of nuclear energy. Mr. Herbert expects the demand for nuclear energy will only grow. "This is the time to develop uranium mines," he said.