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Aboriginal Voices from Canada

"It really gets under my skin when I watch the nuclear industry try to portray this as the cleanest alternative in light of global warming, when we don’t account for all the death, and we don’t account for the fact that we’ve lost an entire watershed."
Lorraine Rekmanes

Jim Tsannie, Jr., Hatchet Lake Denesuline, Sasketchewan, Canada
The province I come from is Saskatchewan. It is one of the largest areas supplying uranium to the world right now. Walston Lake is approximately forty, fifty kilometers across, and a large number of mines are taking place there: Cigar lake, Gravel lake, Cluff lake, McClean Lake, McArthur river, and numerous exploration sites. It is phenomenal to see what is taking place up there, when our communities are right in the same area. The mining industry, in their operating licenses, have a requirement to address the people, and part of the reclamation says community consultation. The consultations aren’t really much to deal with the people; they come over and tell us what they’re going to do. My interpretation of consultation says, we sit at the table, you tell us what you’re proposing to do, and we will let you know what we decide. But they have already made a decision.

They found ore underneath the shoreline of the lake and put a dike in place, pumped the water out, and mined the ore. Then they came back to the community and said, we’re going and we have four options for you. The cheapest was to open the dike and let the water flow back in. The most expensive one was to put the dirt over the area and restore it. Our idea, that was the best route. But they said no, this is actually the one we’re gonna do. People actually got quite upset about that because they said, why did you come here to tell us something? This isn’t consultation; this is coming to tell us. You could have just sent us a letter and tell us you’re doing it anyway, because it doesn’t seem to mean anything to us if we don’t have an opinion regarding the impacts here at the mine versus the community. If we had those mines located near Albuquerque or Saskatoon or Ottawa, I can 100% guarantee you that they will never take place in a large population. The people would be up in arms about it, but because it’s in an isolated area, out of sight, out of mind.

They talk about employment opportunities. Well, there’s only a handful of people working there, and the ones that have worked there for a long time are now starting to get illnesses. And the mine (company) continues to say: It’s not us. It can’t be us. It’s something else. Well, what can it be? They say that they’ve done research and they say that cancer is hereditary. Why are we having so many in our community succumb to cancer?

Are we just going to continue to allow them to continue to mine this ore until we are no longer in existence, that they have the land all to themselves? I don’t think so. We’ve been a resilient people. We’ve been there for 4,000 years. I don’t think that we’re ever going to leave. They have to realize that.

I heard someone speaking earlier at a different session that no one wants to take responsibility and that’s true. They’ve made their money – they’re gone. The government’s talked to people in the company, that they have to clean it up. But they no longer exist, so who do they (government) go to? No one. So they just put the book on the shelf and leave it as it is. Now the government is saying that they’re going to clean it up, but they’re worried about how much money it’s going to cost to clean it.

Cigar Lake is now dealing with these issues. They have certain approaches to the reclamation process, but just to give you an idea, I worked at the mines. I worked at Rabbit Lake, Cigar Lake, and McClean. They gave me a big can to put on top of my chest with a little handle on the side and fill it up with seeds. They said, go to that rock pile over there. And all you do is you turn on this thing and it’s spits out seeds. I’m educated enough to realize, what am I doing this for? Seeding rock. Seeds need soil, water, so I’m actually seeding rocks with no vegetation or anything on top of that. That’s their idea of reclamation.

Lorraine Rekmanes, National Aboriginal Forestry Association, Canada
I am from Serpent River First Nation. We’ve had uranium mining in our territory since the 1950s. It was one of the world’s most famous uranium deposits known as the Big “Z.” It was on the north shore of the Great Lakes in the Serpent watershed, and crisscrossed the Serpent River watershed. We’ve had a legacy of mining. We have lost ten lakes to milling deposits. The lakes were used as natural basins where the mining companies essentially just dumped the milled waste into the lakes and displaced the waters.

The mine shut down in the early 90s, and left the Tailings ponds and some dams that are made out of waste rock, mud, and whatever. We have problems with seepage and flooding. We have beavers that come to the tailings and make dams, flooding out the tailings and displaceing the waste. The scientific concern was the tailings would oxidize, so they wanted to maintain water cover over these ten lakes of about one foot. They have pumped water from other water systems over the top of the tailings to try to keep them submerged.

We have a treaty that we signed in 1850. My great grandfather was a signatory to the treaty, and our understanding was that this was supposed to be an agreement of coexistence. We would be entitled to continue living on the land the way that we had for generations, and that we agreed to share the land with settlers who came. But we’ve got huge areas of land that are unusable. The half-life of radio nuclei is what, 150,000 years? So, in perpetuity we’ve been displaced.

We’ve had a lot of sicknesses, a lot of deaths in our communities resulting from exposure to contaminated drinking water downstream from the mines. We’re a small community, our demographics are different. We’ve got a lot of elderly people in our community; a lot of young people have moved into the urban centers. It’s really hard to organize a community response to dealing with this problem. What we did was try to capture the stories. We published this book, This is My Homeland – the experience of the elders.

I think what people have to understand is this is an assault on the environment, this is an assault on our culture, and it is an assault on the indigenous people as well. The Canadian government saw this as an opportunity to move the aboriginal people into the wage economy and encouraged this kind of development in our territories.

I was one of those kids in the '70s. You know, almost lured out of school to go work in the mines. I remember being 16 years-old, being offered a job at $18 an hour as a laborer. It was hard to stay in school, a lot of money was floating around. Years later, I go back to the same community and see people with various types of cancer. They were never told that they were at risk. As a personal experience, my father mined uranium at Elliot Lake, and he passed away from mine-related disease. I was incredibly angry that he had been lost in such a way. It felt like such a cold-hearted way, but these companies make millions of dollars and profited. They destructed the environment, perpetuating the nuclear chain. It just seemed sort of senseless, it made me very angry so I took up the cause to fight a compensable claim for his cancer.

I was told by the Worker’s Compensation Board there was not point in pursuing it, it would never be paid out. I continued fighting the claim, and it turns out it was the first time that the Worker’s Compensation Board had paid a claim for this type of cancer. When all was said and done, the compensable death benefit was $30,000. It was the icing on the cake if you will, the final slap on the face at the end of the day, letting you know how insignificant you are as a human being, compared to the dividends that they pay their share holders.

I think people take the energy consumption for granted. It really gets under my skin when I watch the nuclear industry try to portray this as the cleanest alternative in light of global warming, when we don’t account for all the death, and we don’t account for the fact that we’ve lost an entire watershed. We can’t sustain this kind of activity. This is the same technology that they used in the '40f, the '50s, the '60s. It’s the same technology that they’re using today and they call it state of the art. I would be embarassed if I was a mining engineer walking around telling people that this disposal, natural waste, waste basins, that it’s state of the art technology. We just can’t sustain it. We can’t give anymore. As an indigenous person, as an Ojibwe woman, I am very pleased to be here in good company to say it’s not sustainable, we’ve had enough. We’re not going to take it anymore.

Gerald Cook, Lac La Ronge Band, Canada
Back in early ‘70s Rabbit Lake mine was founded – it was a high-grade mine. I remember as a boy, there was a lot of money to be made. A lot of exploration companies came up there. I quit school I when I was in grade 10, and one week later I had a job. There was big boom about 1975 in northern Saskatchewan. All the world companies were coming in there, big companies looking for this uranium. There was a lot of economic benefits for the local people, but nobody was taught about the dangers.

At one time, before the other mines started opening, they had some land lease agreements. There are certain criteria, safety standards that they were supposed to do, hiring quotas. They never did those things until other aboriginal peoples and me started to dig up the land lease agreements that the government had signed with the companies. We started to look through it and had meetings with First Nations people. We got some intellectuals from the universities to see why are these companies were so powerful that they do whatever they want, and ignore this land lease they had signed. So we made enough noise, and the government changed the rules. The government said, now the companies can do whatever they want. This is a piece of paper that says the companies can do whatever they want. So that is what is in place now in Northern Saskatchewan.

My friends from up north, Dineh People at Uranium City, there the mining company left everything. They didn’t try getting all the garbage together or seal it or anything. They just said “suppertime” and left. Walked out the door to catch a plane and head south. There has been a lot of media exposure at Uranium City. Through this media exposure, the government has been forced to clean up the sites at Uranium City. They are doing it, but they are stalling. They say: “We didn’t do this,” and “These people did it.” But the company is not in existence any more. So who is left to clean up the site? They are negotiating that. Ultimately, it is the government who took the ore out of the ground, so it should be them who clean up the sites.

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"We’re here to talk about what we can do to save the world from nuclear proliferation. Our world, we’ve come to find out, is very small. It’s not as big as we once thought. It is an almost impossible task to save the world from nuclear proliferation, but in my way of life, the Diné way of life, we believe that there are no impossibilities. Although it seems like there are only a handful of us here trying to make a stand against nuclear proliferation, the task is not impossible. It all starts when we come together from all corners of the world, like we are doing here this week. We can start by coming to the realization that we are all on the same side. We are all members of the five-fingered intelligent earth dwellers called homosapiens, human beings. It doesn’t matter the color, the creed. We’re all earth dwellers here, in this world."
—The Honorable Joe Shirley, Jr.
President of the Navajo Nation
Address to the Indigenous World Uranium Summit, November 30, 2006

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