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Defending the Land from Nuclear Waste

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August 10, 2012

Defending the Land from Nuclear Waste

Indigenous community elders, activists gather in northern Saskatchewan against nuclear waste site

by Sandra Cuffe

A grassroots gathering against a potential nuclear waste site in northern Saskatchewan was held August 3 to 6 in South Bay, on lake Ile-a-la-Crosse. Photo: Johnny Marceland

SOUTH BAY, SK—The storm clouds had moved on by the time people arrived at South Bay on lake Ile-a-la-Crosse last Friday for a grassroots gathering against a potential nuclear waste site in northern Saskatchewan. Dene, Cree and Métis elders from affected communities, grassroots activists from around Saskatchewan and others from as far as the west coast and Germany shared coffee, songs, experiences and a whole lot of moose meat from August 3 to 6 at the Survival Celebration Camp for Sustainable Earth.

"We have to protect the land," Jules Daigneault told those gathered in a sharing circle around the campfire. When the 70-year-old elder heard about the gathering happening in South Bay, he travelled across the lake to the camp from his home in Ile-a-la-Crosse in a boat he made himself. "Everything comes from the land. All our food comes from the land."

Gunter Wippel traveled to the camp from Germany, where he has been actively involved in anti-nuclear activism for decades. Wippel has been visiting northern Saskatchewan since the late 1980s, involved with struggles against the expansion of the uranium mining industry. He was also in the province in the mid-90s for the Seaborn panel hearings on nuclear waste management in Canada.

"I can't believe that we still have to protest that same shit," Wippel remarked during the closing circle on Monday.

As is the case in most countries with nuclear power production, spent fuel bundles are stored onsite at reactors in Canada—in Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick. The federal Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) is planning a deep geological repository to place all of Canada's nuclear waste underground in the rock. No permanent waste storage facility exists anywhere in the world, largely due to opposition from scientific, environmental, activist and other communities.

In the latest stage of the decades-long search for a long-term nuclear waste disposal site, NWMO has received expressions of interest to host the site. Although Saskatchewan is already host to the tailings and waste from the uranium mining industry producing the uranium to be refined and processed for nuclear energy elsewhere, the province was included in the search for a willing host community. Along with several places in Ontario, NWMO has three locations in northern Saskatchewan on the map: Pinehouse, the English River First Nation and Creighton.

But elders and community members from Pinehouse and the English River First Nation say that their communities are largely opposed to hosting nuclear waste in their territories. Despite the money that NWMO and Saskatchewan-based uranium mining giant CAMECO have recently been pouring into the local councils, community promoters and other programs, they say that they did not initially even know that their own councils—municipal in Pinehouse and Band in English River—were advocating for the multi-million-dollar proposals.

"The Chiefs there don't say nothing to us. They just talk about money, budgets," Dene elder Louis Wolverine told The Dominion. Wolverine, 84, was one of several elders who attended the camp from Patuanak, near the part of the English River First Nation seemingly identified for the waste site.

"They say that it's okay, that nothing's very dangerous," he said of CAMECO and NWMO. The people in Patuanak don't want nuclear waste, he said. "The elders too—they don't want it."

Elder Mary Jane Wolverine spoke to people attending the elder's circle in Dene, with translation into English by another elder from Patuanak. Several elders spoke of the impacts of uranium mining on fishing, hunting and gathering grounds. Some had traplines and seasonal camps where the Key Lake mine is now located. They are now speaking out to protect their traditional territory, the interconnected lakes and waterways, the animals and the medicinal plants from further destruction.

"We have our children, our future grandchildren growing up...Myself, I don't want it in our country," she said. "All the elders are saying the same thing, that we don't want anything to do with nuclear waste."

In Pinehouse, a town located along the road up to the Key Lake uranium mine, the mayor and municipal council have been meeting with NWMO behind closed doors, says Fred Pederson, an outspoken Cree elder from the community. NWMO has a group of paid promoters, an elder's group and access to young students, says Pederson.

But 60 per cent of eligible voters in Pinehouse signed a petition against nuclear waste disposal in northern Saskatchewan, without the petition even having reached the whole population. The Committee for Future Generations, a grassroots organization in the region, presented the petition with more than 12,000 signatures to the provincial legislature last year. Opposition continues to grow in Pinehouse and around the province.

"It's not the people that want it. It is just our leaders that are promoting it," Pederson told The Dominion. He and several others at the gathering also raised the issue of systemic racism by the provincial and federal governments in their search for a nuclear waste disposal site in northern Saskatchewan, in Indigenous and Metis traditional territories. "It's just like we don't count, like they can kill us off."

When the nightly conversation and music around the fire continued into the wee hours of Monday morning, those who stayed awake extending their time together on the last night of the gathering were rewarded. The northern lights made a surprise appearance in the night sky, with shimmering green lights dancing overhead as the last people wandered off to their tents, campers and the beach.

Elders from affected northern communities, the Committee for Future Generations, and others who attended the camp from further away reiterated their commitment to the struggle against nuclear waste in northern Saskatchewan. Revitalized by the camraderie, inspired by the elders, and energized by the young children playing along the beach, those involved with the gathering have plans well underway to continue the campaign over the next few months.

"If we band together, people produce power," said Pederson. "We can stop all of this. We can stop the destruction."

Sandra Cuffe is a Media Co-op editor based in Vancouver, and a member of the Vancouver Media Co-op.

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