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On January 16, the Harper government made headlines when it fired Linda Keen from her post as president of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC). Under Keen's leadership, the CNSC had shut down the aging Chalk River nuclear reactor in November, and had been at odds with the Harper government ever since. Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn ostensibly fired Keen because of a "worldwide shortage" of medical isotopes supplied by the reactor allegedly caused by its closure. In Canada's media, the debate has been about whether Keen's firing violated the arm's-length nature of the CNSC, depriving it of the ability to make independent decisions.
What reports largely miss is the long history of lies, theft and radioactive contamination surrounding Chalk River Laboratories (CRL). If the reactor continues to operate, this history will find its way to the fore. The one-sided battle between Canadian government and corporations and the area's original inhabitants will continue until accountability, public health and the rule of law--the supposed mandate of organizations like the CNSC--are achieved.
Chalk River Origins
The mining project that became the infamous Port Radium began in 1890, when a prospector laid claim to a vein of silver and pitchblende on the shore of Sahtu, or Great Bear Lake. In the early 1940s, uranium from that site was needed for the Manhattan Project, the US-UK-Canadian intiative that built the first atomic bomb, and the mine was expropriated. Sahtugot'ine workers who were exposed to radioactive materials but who were not warned of the danger began to die of exotic cancers years later; their land and water was contaminated with radioactive materials.
From there, the uranium headed south.
The Combined Policy Committee, the three-country committee charged with collaboration in the creation of an atomic bomb, mandated the construction of the world's first large-scale heavy water reactor in Canada. The ultra-secret project required immediate access to very deep water for generation and cooling purposes.
On August 21, 1944 it was decided to locate the heavy water project at Chalk River, Ontario, situated along the shores of the Ottawa River. Here begins the relationship between the nuclear industry, the historic "Kichesippi River" and the Algonquin people.
In an article written in 2000, professor of psychology and historian Evan Pritchard has written that "One band of 'Anishinabe-Algonkians,' the 'Kiche-sipi-rini' or 'People of the Great River,' were possibly the first of this ancient culture to settle down in one place, Allumette Island.
"Allumette is the largest island in the Ottawa River, the river which forms the boundary between Ontario and Quebec, and there is evidence of sedentary Anishinabe-Algonkian settlements there going back at least 6,280 years, and occupation in the area dating back 7,000 years as it became inhabitable after the Ice Age. From this power base in the center of the trade route, their influence and language spread throughout North America. Hence they have been called 'The First People.'
"Allumette Island," Pritchard continues, "was a turning point in the civilization. There is little doubt that the Anishinabe-Algonkians of Allumette are the direct descendants of the so-called "Clovis" people, long considered the oldest group of Native Americans."
The Kichesipirini, in accordance with the Aboriginal legal system -- in place prior to any sovereignty assertions by any imperial Crown, controlled economic activity and political diplomacy of the Ottawa River and surrounding region. Initially, that jurisdiction was to have been protected but the government suddenly changed its mind in 1837, cancelling the promises of a reserve, preferring to move people from their traditional land to areas away from the river. The move opened the door for exploitation of Kichesipirini territory by the lumber trade, and destroyed the Algonquin traditional governance system.
While those who agreed to move to the established reserves or who joined other satellite historic bands were then federally "recognized," many others from the Ottawa, Renfrew and Pontiac Counties did not re-locate and were later referred to as "stragglers." The governments of Canada, Ontario and Quebec, like the colonial imperial governments that preceded them, consistently treated the traditional Algonquin people as squatters on their own land. The Kichesipirini, despite continuing to exist within their territory, were administratively erased from the public record through Canadian domestic Aboriginal policy.
More than 3,000 hectares along the Ottawa River were expropriated, including farm land from several Kichesipirini families, 30 km northwest of Pembroke, Ontario. Thus, Chalk River Laboratories (CRL) had its beginnings. The area is a place of spiritual significance to the Algonquin people because of the depth of the water and its proximity to other sacred sites, including ancestral gravesites.
The local people, predominately Kichesipirini Algonquin, were told that what was being built was a plastic processing plant.
During the first several decades of operation at Chalk River, no safety standards or protocols were in place. Nuclear wastes were handled carelessly, causing widespread radioactive contamination of the site far beyond what would be considered acceptable standards today.
Local residents were never properly informed. Civilians, especially the persons of Aboriginal descent more dependent on local natural resources for food, have still never been identified or monitored. According to expert sources, radioactive wastes are still leaking into the Ottawa River, which is an important source of food, recreation and drinking water used by numerous communities downriver in Ontario and Quebec, including the city of Ottawa.
This site, with its legacy of secrecy, expediency, and experimentation is now owned and operated by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited (AECL), the federal crown corporation that designs and markets CANDU reactors.
The reactor built at Chalk River began operation in 1957, and has been slated for retirement for years. In 2006, AECL assured the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) that safety upgrades would be made to the reactor, including emergency power supply to two heavy-water pumps. AECL then lied when they submitted a Safety Analysis for NRU relicensing, claiming that the required safety modifications were completed. During a routine meeting in November of 2007, CNSC learned that the pumps were in fact not connected.
AECL loses revenue to a private company. Under the Conservative Mulroney government, one of AECL's hopes of financial sustainability, the lucrative revenue from medical isotope productions, was sold from the Crown corporation to the private firm MDS Nordion. Most of the revenue from isotope productions would always go to MDS Nordion as per their 40 year supply agreement. As a result, taxpayers carried the expenses of reactor and isotopes production, liabilities, decommissioning, and maintenance but MDS Nordion recieved most of the profits that accrued.
The local population, not having recovered from declines in the forest industry, is now becoming dependent on the subsidized nuclear industry as their major employer and economic contributor. Lacking economic diversity, fearful of job loss and community revenue losses, few local people or community leaders will now oppose this leeching giant, this Windego, on their shorelines.
Paula Lapierre is the Principal Sachem of the Kichesipirini Algonquin First Nation
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.