CANADA: RADIOACTIVE HUNTING GROUNDS
Canada is currently the second-largest uranium producer in the world. The Indigenous people, on whose territories the mines are located, were never informed about the hazards and risks involved. The consequences of mining continue to pose a severe threat to their health.
The story goes that, long before Europeans arrived on their territory, a group of Indigenous hunters returned from hunting caribou and pitched camp for the night near the Great Bear Lake close to a rock they called “Somba Ke”. Among them was a Shaman, who sang and drummed until dawn. When the sun came up, he spoke to the hunters of his vision: men with white skin would arrive and tear up the earth in the very place they were camping. They would drill a hole and bring up something from the depths of the earth. They would make sticks from it and these would be flown to the other side of the globe by an iron bird. On the ground where the iron bird dropped the sticks, all life would be destroyed. The victims in his vision looked like the people of the tribe, but they were not. In the future, the medicine man warned, people should stay away from the rock.
In the 1930s, when the Eldorado Gold Mine was opened on lands belonging to the Sahtú Dene on the Eastern shore of the Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories, nobody remembered this prophecy. When pitchblende (a uranium oxide) was found, the company abandoned the gold and made their profit from extracting radium (a decay element of uranium) instead. Many hunters gave up hunting and took the new jobs offered to them at Port Radium, as the mining area was now called. Unaware of the risks, they carried bags full of ore on their shoulders to the ships waiting in the harbor. Now the hot item was uranium. The shipments were secretly transported to Port Hope in Ontario Province for further processing and, from there, the yellowcake made its way south to Los Alamos, New Mexico. Until 1971, the US government was the sole purchaser of Canadian uranium – mostly for military purposes.
Decades later, many Indigenous miners died from cancer; it was then that people began to remember the old warning. The village of Déline, formerly Fort Franklin, home to most of the miners, was soon called “Village of Widows”. In 2005, the government issued a report, which acknowledged the poor information given to the people and made recommendations for community improvements; but no recommendations were issued for any kind of compensation. Douglas Chambers, a physician working for the Canadian government, stated in an interview with the Canadian state broadcaster CBC that “the potential risk of cancer associated with transporting the ore concentrate is extremely small, and in fact so small it would not be detectable.”
In 1998, a delegation of women from Déline traveled to Japan and asked the Hibakusha, the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, for their forgiveness, since their husbands had mined and transported the uranium that was eventually used in the atomic bombs “Little Boy” and “Fat Man”. Their journey was a pilgrimage: Indigenous people of North America believe that healing requires circles to be closed in order to allow for reconciliation.
The largest uranium deposits in Canada were found in 1949 in the Athabasca Basin and in 1954 near Elliot Lake, moving production to the provinces of Saskatchewan and Ontario, where it was mainly the Cree and Anishinabe (Ojibway) who were affected. The Beaverlodge Mining Area was established on the northern shore of Lake Athabasca, a conglomerate of the state-owned Eldorado Nuclear Ltd. and the municipality of Uranium City, which became a boom town for three decades with almost 6,000 inhabitants. In 1982, the mines closed and, by 2016, had left behind a ghost town of no more than 73 inhabitants.
In Ontario, Denison Mines and Rio Algom operated a total of twelve mines, and the small town of Elliot Lake awarded itself the title “Uranium Capital of the World“. By the end of the 1950s, 74 percent of Canadian uranium came from there. In the 1970s, the miners began to strike, alarmed by the high number of lung cancer cases. These protests were supported by the Anishinabe on the nearby Serpent River Reservation on the northern shore of Lake Huron. Five of the Elliot Lake mines were closed during this time, the other seven in the 1990s. Tailings were cleaned up by Denison and Rio Algom, but without any government approval.
In Saskatchewan, the Gunnar Mine southwest of Uranium City was closed in 1964, leaving behind 4.4 million tons of tailings. The government did not begin cleanup operations until 50 years later, at an estimated cost of around 280 million Canadian dollars. The last working mines remained in Saskat-chewan: McArthur River and Cigar Lake. In 2019, in the aftermath of Fukushima, McArthur River was shut down indefinitely by its operating companies, Cameco and Orano. Cigar Lake continues to operate, since the uranium content of the ore is extraordinary high, mostly between 10 and 13 percent, in some cases even as much as 20 percent. The mine was shut down in early 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The three roads leading to the north of the province of Saskatchewan were built exclusively for the uranium mines. They cut through “Treaty 10 Land”. While the first seven treaties with First Nations, beginning in 1871, were made across the country to advance European settlements and the Canadian Pacific Railway, the motive for treaties 8 to 11, ending in 1921, was the extraction of resources.
The Athabasca Basin is part of the subarctic region in the Canadian Shield of Northern Saskatchewan and Alberta. It is dotted with lakes, streams and swamps and from October to May is normally covered in snow. Climate change has now altered these weather patterns – a severe threat to people who depend mainly on hunting, trapping and fishing. In the tundra region, radioactivity from the uranium mines and the adjacent mills, including waste rock deposits, cannot be contained. The Indigenous hunters, who were never warned about the hazards and risks of radioactivity, have reported malformed fish and even moose fetuses with two heads.
Canada’s north is still a wilderness area, sparsely populated and isolated from the large cities in the south. For a long time, Indigenous resistance fell on deaf ears. However, when First Nations activists met like-minded people at the first international conferences of the Canadian anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s, and at the World Uranium Hearing in 1992 in Salzburg, a resistance network was established, which today has found a voice as a united force.
The Canadian government is now considering the establishment of two nuclear waste dumps in Ontario – and is looking at awarding new licenses for the extraction of oil from its tar sands, which have already transformed large parts of Alberta into a moonscape. “We will not stop fighting”, says Dene hunter Don Montagrand. “We are fighting for our children.”
At the beginning of the new millennium, uranium was found east of James Bay in the north of Quebec province. A protest march by Cree youth in December 2014, from Mistissini to Quebec City and then Montreal – a distance of more than 850 kilometers – was followed by a World Uranium Symposium in Quebec City. In 2015, the provincial government terminated the negotiations with Strateco Resources and declared a moratorium until further notice.
• Excellent overview: ccnr.org, miningwatch.ca
• Jim Harding: Canada's Deadly Secret, Saskatchewan Uranium and the Global Nuclear System, Fernwood Publishing 2007