Our Story: Uranium Prospecting in our Backyard

By Gloria Morrison

This past January, I was interviewed on CBC’s national radio program As It Happens. Journalist Carol Off asked what I had learned since I discovered that our land had been staked for uranium mining exploration.

I want to share the heart-wrenching questions that my husband and I are left to ponder as we await the bulldozers, chain saws and earth moving equipment to begin their destruction of our much beloved paradise.

During the first week of October 2006 my husband Frank was out collecting firewood to top up our winter supply. We own 100 acres of land, of which 80 acres is mixed woodlot and 20 acres is rolling meadow. He came upon an area where several of our trees had been severed, and the four feet of trunk that was still protruding from the ground where the trees once were had been squared into posts, were tagged and had notes made on the newly razed trunks. The steel tags had numbers and the emblem for the province of Ontario. The pen writing included a date from the previous week and a man’s name. Besides the several severed posts there were about 30 trees that had been ‘blazed’ along approximately a 1200 foot line of pink marking tape.

At that time, Frank correctly guessed that our land had been staked for mining. We had not received any notification or warning that this was going to happen.

After the first Stake is sunk

What we have learned about this situation since that time is the following. As surface rights owners we truthfully have no rights to protect our land. The mining company, through their prospector, can enter our land at will without advising us. According to the 1870s mining law of Ontario, for the purposes of staking, prospectors are permitted to cut down our trees to create posts and blaze others to mark a trail.

During the assessment phase, which can go on for as long as 15 or 20 years, they can dig large trenches and deep holes, cut down trees, remove thousands of tons of soil and rock and bring in whatever equipment is necessary to do this. As the surface rights owners we are entitled to compensation in some instances, according to the law. In reality we have learned that the cost to pursue this is always in excess of what one could ever hope to recover. And of course this is always after the fact. My understanding is that the issue of compensation is that it is ‘a cruel joke.’

In our area, as of this date, a total of 70 claims have been staked; 54 by Frontenac Ventures Corporation and 16 by RJK Explorations. The majority of these claims are on Crown land. From the enquiries I have made to the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR), the stewards of our Crown land, it seems that once Crown land is staked it is under the ‘care’ of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mining. (MNDM - the website for the Ministry of Northern Development and Mining is clear: their mandate is to promote the interests of mining.)

When I reacted in horror to this information, each of the individuals I spoke with at the Ministry of Natural Resources said that perhaps they were wrong and someone more knowledgeable from the MNR would get back to me. Several months later, when the promised return phone calls had not materialized, I again called the MNR and this time I did receive a response from our area supervisor in Tweed.

He informed me that once Crown land was staked it then fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Northern Development and Mining. When I protested that this was unreasonable given the mandate of MNDM he stated the plain truth; the power of the MNDM supersedes that of the MNR. Other than issuing standard permits for things such as the construction of roads, the MNR no longer held jurisdiction. There was nothing the MNR could do to help us.

My question today is the following: who will do the important task of monitoring what happens on our precious Crown land in our area?

We are also facing the consequences of uranium mining. My question is fundamental: what are the possible health and environmental repercussions of uranium being extracted in our backyard, literally?

For me, the most fearful prospect of this reality is that it seems there are no regulations or environmental groups who monitor the activities of mining companies during the assessment phase, prior to the actual decision to mine. Again, when I reacted with fear I was told by all the individuals in the various ministries I have contacted that I could claim compensation if any harm is done.

But what is reasonable compensation when our air, water and soil are contaminated and our health is affected?

If a surface rights owner finds the evidence that their land has been staked the only recourse they have, if they are not in agreement, is to file a Dispute. This is done through the Ministry of Northern Development and Mining. Again, it is important to keep in mind that the mandate of this ministry is to promote the mining interests.

The Dispute must be filed within one year from the time the staked land was registered. After that one year period the surface rights owner has no recourse to lodge their dissatisfaction. Frank and I plan to do this, although we have already been warned not to get our hopes up. The mining interests are extremely powerful.

Our connection with the Land

Frank and I have both lived in Ottawa for most of our adult lives. Beginning in 1990 we started looking for the perfect piece of land in the country to use for recreation now and eventually retire on. In 1996 we fell in love, ‘at first sight’ with a property that had the wonderful mixed forest that Frank wanted, as well a decent meadow area that would support growing herbs and vegetables.

It also included what always moves my heart – wonderful streams and huge rock boulders. It was also within 90 minutes of Ottawa. It did not include any structures or services but we had found our dream property so we would manage. That first fall, Frank started building a tiny cabin to serve as basic shelter, until such time as we could build a proper home. The cabin he built measures 10 feet by 14 feet, has no amenities except a wood stove, and was completely constructed by hand with no power tools. It served as our retreat until we moved, permanently from Ottawa, in 2002. It still serves as backup for visitors and although not a thing of beauty to others, it is a constant emblem of Frank’s hard work and his love of the land.

The modest log cabin that is now our home was built from a stand of trees on our own land. We decided not to install hydro and instead manage with a solar powered system. We have an open concept, small home and heat entirely with a high efficiency wood stove.  Of course this means that we are very conscious of our energy needs and our lifestyle is much more physical than many would care for, but we do not mind.

We share our land with many animals including bears, wolves, coyotes, partridges and wild turkeys. We love this wild and rugged terrain. Our 80 acres of forest has a registered plan – under the Managed Forest System. It is designated as recreation land for animals and people with the focus on trails and natural growth, with particular attention to the healthy maturing of a mixed variety of trees.

Frank has spent 10 years clearing and grooming this land. When we contacted the Managed Forest Group for help when we realized the land had been staked, they advised us that not only could they not help us against the mining interests, but that we could expect to lose our designation under the managed forest plan; hence, our taxes would drastically rise.

Our hope has always been to pass this little bit of heaven on to our children. We are now facing the reality that not only have our dreams disintegrated but we are left with a property for which -although it took a lifetime of effort to pay for- the market value is most uncertain. Who would buy land expecting that trenches and huge holes can be dug, vast amounts of soil removed, trees cut, terrain disturbed in any number of ways, and large equipment coming and going at the mining company’s will.

What does the Future hold?

Do we continue to care and groom and put our remaining time and energy into a property we love, knowing that on any given day, with a mere 24 hours notice, the mining company can walk right in and start work?

Nor is this just our heartbreak. In the initial assessment phase, if our water and soil is contaminated many people will be affected. The water from our creeks flows into the Mississippi River, which supplies water for many communities that border the city of Ottawa. As well, assessment work on the vast amount of crown land captured in these claims has ramifications for our area, which is known as the Land O’ Lakes, where tourism and recreational purposes dominate the use of land.

Looking twenty years into the future, there is no doubt that an actual on-site uranium mining operation would unequivocally change this region.  But the possible ramifications go far beyond that. In my mind, I have always envisioned our forested region with its fresh running waters as the ‘environmental filter’ for our neighboring urban cities. In one generation that ‘filter’ could not only vanish, but be replaced with a hazard that no one can truthfully predict the consequences of.

The Township of North Frontenac is a large, beautiful, rugged terrain comprising a total of 108,694 hectares, of which 61,863 hectares are designated as Crown land. Almost 80% of the township’s small population is seasonal. For those who live here full time, only 1904 souls, it can be a modest lifestyle with few employment opportunities and services. The mining company, I have no doubt, took this into consideration when choosing to stake in our area. Obviously the uranium deposits are here, but this is also a milieu where there are few voices to protest and the area is known to be economically ‘humble’ and without the economic resources of other, more affluent parts of Ontario.

This is a David and Goliath story. We need the voices of other people from Ontario, as well as from Canadians across this land to join with us to demand rights as property owners. All across this country, each and every province is in desperate need of decent and responsible laws for the mining of minerals.

The ultimate reason for every Canadian to add their voice to the call for change relates to our physical planet. No matter how high the value of uranium may climb, it will never be enough to compensate us for the loss of a healthy planet to live on.