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Opponents of uranium mining in Quebec's North Shore community of Sept-Îles are mounting a protest they hope will result in a provincewide referendum on the development of uranium mines.

The group, called Sept-Îles Sans Uranium, is organizing a march in their community on Sunday aimed at forcing the Quebec government to hold a debate on the health and safety concerns surrounding uranium mining.

"Holding a referendum is the only way for people to have a say over such a major development," said Marc Fafard, the group's spokesman.

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"I've wanted a national debate on this issue for a long time. Now the cat is out of the bag and pressure is such that the government will no longer be able to ignore us."

There are more than 80 uranium exploration sites in Quebec, up from only two or three in 2004, in part because of the increased demand for uranium and the Quebec government's plan to stimulate mining activity in the province. There are no active uranium mines in the province.

Terra Ventures Inc., a mining company based in British Columbia, has been conducting extensive drilling in the area, especially near Lake Kachiwiss, 13 kilometres from downtown Sept-Îles and near the city's water supply. The drilling has exacerbated concerns that a uranium mine is not far behind.

Last week, 20 local physicians threatened to leave Sept-Îles if the province didn't impose a moratorium on uranium exploration. Three more local physicians joined the protest Monday, despite charges by the Quebec College of Physicians that the doctors' actions would pose a public health threat.

The physicians' concerns were shared by city council, the Innu communities of Mingan and Ushatmak Mani-Utenam, and the local chamber of commerce.

Many groups have been demanding more information on the impact of a uranium mine on the health of the community, and the Innu are considering legal action to stop the project in its tracks.

The physicians focused on the long-term dangers radioactive mining residues could have on residents.

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"If exploration of uranium-bearing mineral is not the most polluting step in the uranium chain, imposing a moratorium on this crucial step would allow us to avoid major problems associated with the next steps," wrote psychiatrist Isabelle Gingras and lung specialist Bruno Imbeault in a letter published in Le Devoir newspaper yesterday.

"Moreover, there are no studies to prove that exploration is without danger to our health and the environment."

While the protest movement has gained momentum, the community has been deeply divided over the issue. The doctors faced harsh criticism from a local union as well as the mining industry.

The head of the local United Steelworkers union defended the need to support mining development and the jobs it has created.

The Québec Mineral Exploration Association said the doctors failed to back their concerns with solid scientific data.

"Canada is the biggest and safest producer of uranium in the world," the association stated in a news release.

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"As for being exposed to different natural radiation levels during exploration ... [studies]allows us to conclude that the levels ... pose no problems to people's health."

The Quebec government has said it will meet with the opponents of uranium exploration.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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