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Canada, Racism, Genocide, and the Bomb

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Issue: 27 Section: Original Peoples Topics: Mining, racism, Indigenous, uranium

April 5, 2005

Canada, Racism, Genocide, and the Bomb

The Legacy of C.D. Howe

by Kim Petersen

It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.
-- William Lyon Mackenzie King (uncensored diaries)
The first shipment of Uranium is transported on Sahtu (Great Bear Lake) in 1931. Photo: Public Archives
Few Canadians know of Canada's link to Little Boy, the so-christened uranium bomb that exploded over Hiroshima, and Fat Man, the plutonium bomb that devastated Nagasaki. Not only were Japanese citizens expendable in the nuclear holocaust, but the "Canadian Genocide Machine" (see Robert Davis and Mark Zannis, Black Rose, 1973) wreaked long-lasting damage on the Original Peoples in the Arctic.

Sahtu (Great Bear Lake) is the ninth largest lake in the world, famed for its record-size lake trout and Arctic graylings. The Sahtugot'ine (Dene First Nation of Sahtu) have traditionally carried out a subsistence livelihood following their food, mainly caribou and the fish, seasonally around Sahtu. A thriving community of 650 has settled in Deline. Previously called Fort Franklin after an English explorer, Deline means, "Where the water flows," in the Slavey language.

The uranium mine was developed by the Canadian government to satisfy US needs for the World War II effort to construct an atomic bomb. From 1942 to 1960, the Sahtugot'ine worked at the mine in Port Radium, unknowingly polluting their massive freshwater resource and irradiating themselves. In the early 1960s, the danger became apparent. The Sahtugot'ine workers started to die from lung, colon, and kidney cancers -- diseases previously unknown to them.

Cindy Kenny-Gilday is a Sahtugot'ine who has worked on the issue of uranium contamination of lands and people around Sahtu. About the lethal legacy of uranium mining, she stated in 1998:

Deline is practically a village of widows, most of the men who worked as laborers have died of some form of cancer. The widows, who are traditional women were left to raise their families with no breadwinners, supporters. They were left to depend on welfare and other young men for their traditional food source. This village of young men are the first generation of men in the history of Dene on this lake to grow up without guidance from their grandfathers, fathers and uncles. This cultural, economic, spiritual, emotional deprivation impact on the community is a threat to the survival of the one and only tribe on Great Bear Lake.

Declassified documents reveal that the danger from uranium was known during the mining operation. However, neither the Canadian nor US governments saw fit to make known the health dangers. The Sahtugot'ine were sacrificed for an effort that ultimately slaughtered hundreds of thousands.

"In my mind, it's a war crime that has been well hidden," said Kenny-Gilday. "We were the first civilian victims of the war."

Canada and the Bomb

In 1930, Gilbert LaBine discovered uranium near Sahtu, but he shut down the mine at the outbreak of World War II. In 1942, Minister of Munitions and Supply C.D. Howe told LaBine to reopen the mine and instructed him: "Get together the most trustworthy people you can find. The Canadian government will give you whatever money is required. ... And for God's sake don't even tell your wife what you're doing."

Hundreds of Canadian scientists collaborated with allied scientists on the atomic bomb program, for which Canada supplied the uranium and heavy water. Canada also had representation on the Combined Policy Committee that administered the atomic bomb program. Canada's Howe was among the committee members who approved the use of the bomb on Japan.

On 6 August 1945, B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped Fat Man on Hiroshima, a city of 343,000, killing 100,000 people immediately and leveling the city.

In 1998, six members of the Sahtugot'ine went to Japan to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an atrocity that some Sahtugot'ine unwittingly had a hand in, a role they now regret.

Canadian Genocide Machine

On 22 March 1998, community evidence was presented to the Canadian government alleging "prior knowledge and ongoing complicity in the environmental crime" suffered by the Dene First Nation of Deline. Chief Raymond Tutcho said:

We, the Dene, have been subjected to over 60 years of horrible injustice because of apparent national interests. Our people have paid for this with our lives and the health of our community, lands, and waters. We have set out a 'Plan for Essential Response and Necessary Redress.'

The six-point plan called for immediate crisis assistance, a comprehensive environmental and social assessment, full public disclosure, clean-ups and monitoring, acknowledgment of government responsibility, and community healing and cultural regeneration.

Tutcho's call saw the formation of the Canada-Deline Uranium Table (CDUT) in 1999, which was charged in 2002 with putting together an action plan "to describe, scope and recommend studies and activities that, when completed, will provide information necessary to enable the CDUT to make informed decisions about long-term management of Port Radium site and any ongoing health requirement ..."

Cathy Mackeinzo, manager of the CDUT, stated that "the community, leaders and community, had agreed to work with the federal government to address joint issues."

"At that time people thought it was a good process," she said. "It's working out to date."

A final report, due for completion in March 2005, has since been extended to June. Danny Gaudet, chief negotiator of the CDUT confirmed that no special treatment of radiation-afflicted people been undertaken "other than developing assessments of high risk patients."

In response to the over "60 years of horrible injustice," without compensation, without health treatment, and without an environmental cleanup, Mackeinzo admitted that there was "a lot of outstanding grieving" in the community and that she was only speaking in her managerial capacity.

The Deline Uranium Team's November 2004 newsletter suggests frivolity. The newsletter detailed how 15 Deline community members and four CDUT staffers flew over for a tour of the mine, had a cup of tea, enjoyed the view from above, and felt "tired but satisfied" afterwards. While some speak of action, the noxious environmental and health risks linger.

Howe is eponymously memorialized by a right-wing think tank, but his name is also linked to enormous suffering.

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