Déline Dene Mining Tragedy

Ronald B. Barbour

Years before the first white person stepped foot onto Dene territory, a powerful Medicine Man, healer and prophet, Louis Ayah began to warn his people of terrible circumstances that were going to come to his people when the white man starts taking the “dangerous rock” out of the ground. He foretold that this material would be taken in a flying boat and used to destroy many brown people in a foreign land. He also foretold of the water being poisoned and warned his people to stay away from this area.

Now, nearly 150 years later, six members of the Déline Dene, all living with the pain and suffering of family and friends dying of radiation poisoning, are going to Hiroshima to join in the services commemorating the dropping of the atomic bomb on that city on August 6, 1945.

According to Cindy Kenny-Gilday, the Chair of the Déline Dene Band Uranium Committee, the trip to Hiroshima serves two purposes:

  • to tell their story, on a global stage, of their repeated attempts to motivate the Canadian government into dealing with the horrific impact that the uranium mining has had on their community (and of Canada’s refusal to deal in good faith with these issues);
  • to express their sadness and compassion for the suffering that the uranium from Great Bear Lake has caused elsewhere.

“One of the widows expressed deep sorrow that the material that came out of our land had killed innocent victims in a land that’s foreign to us,” says Kenny-Gilday. “And we send them our deep sorrow and we send them our respects.”

Kenny-Gilday says that for nearly 30 years the Dene have been trying through their traditional methods to dialogue with the Canadian government and motivate them into addressing the problems experienced by the Dene of Déline. After years of neglect, the Dene elders decided to approach the government in a manner they might understand. Just over a year ago they decided to submit their concerns to Ottawa in the form of a written document and on June 10 a delegation representing the Dene met with three federal cabinet ministers with their 160-page report.

This report, entitled They Never Told Us These Things, recounts the history of government involvement with the Port Radium mine and the irreparable impact this activity has had on the environment, their health and their community. It lists 14 points of resolution that the Dene feel will adequately address these issues.

“The 14 points of resolution (are) common sense resolutions the people perceive to be the answers to their problems to be resolved at the community level,” says Kenny-Gilday. “…They came back with a three-point solution plan that we did not agree to that was tabled as a government solution to the peoples’ problem.”

The Dene felt Ottawa completely ignored what they proffered as solutions which were determined at a wide-spread community level. They have yet to receive any significant response. When the uranium was first discovered in their area in the 1930s, a couple of mineral savvy gold-seekers, Gilbert and Charlie LaBine bought the rights to mine the ore, that was worth $70,000 a gram, in exchange for a few sacks of flour, lard and some baking powder. In 1932 the Port Radium mine began production and continued operations until 1940. The mine was re-opened in 1942 under the ownership of a now defunct Crown corporation, Eldorado Mining and Refining, which ran until 1960.

During the beginning of the war efforts, the mine was kept running at a very high pace, utilizing non-Native miners brought in from all over the country. The Dene were employed as “coolies” packing 45-kilogram sacks of radioactive ore for three dollars a day, working 12 hours a day, six days a week for four months of the year.

Throughout the 1950s, the American government began studies on cancers linked with uranium mining. Victor E. Archer, an American epidemiologist, who started the first cancer studies on miners in 1954, had stated that the American reports on these studies and updates were forwarded regularly to the Eldorado mine management, as well as to the Canadian government. Although the Canadian government knew there were significant dangers in working with radioactive material, the decision was made to continue mining the ore without adequate safe-guards to miners and laborers or even without informing their workers of the inherent dangers.

Archer cites declassified reports by Wilhelm C. Hueper, the founding director of the environmental cancer section of the U.S. National Cancer Institute, who studied 300 years worth of data specifically regarding the effects of radon on European miners. His reports predicted serious health concerns of radium miners in the Great Bear Lake and the Belgium Congo.

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission responded to Hueper’s reports by telling him that occupational cancers among uranium workers were “not in the public interest.” Neither the Canadian government or the mine owners wanted to scare miners away, or implement better health safeguards that would force uranium prices up, says Archer. The loss of close to 50 males in their community of 700 has had a devastating effect on the survival of their culture.

Kenney-Gilday, who has suffered the loss of her father to colon cancer and brother to stomach cancer, stressed that it is the grandfathers in Dene society who passes on the traditions. Because of the loss of these men in the community, there are too many men without fathers or grandfathers to teach them.

“It’s the most vicious example of cultural genocide I have ever seen, and it’s in my own home,” emphasized Kenny-Gilday.

The legacy of uranium mining at Great Bear Lake has not only left in its wake a “village of widows,” but the water and the land surrounding the closed mine has essentially become a radioactive wasteland. Over 1.7 million tons of radioactive waste and tailings from the operations of the Eldorado mine was callously dumped into and around the lake drastically contaminating the food sources of the Dene people

“The whole land is used on seasonal basis — on harvesting cariboo and fish,” say Kenny-Gilday. “People are surprised at how much the people in Déline depend on the food from the land. If you’re paying six dollars for a dozen eggs, you’re going to go have to get a fish or shoot a cariboo.”

Recent satellite tracking of cariboo in the north confirm that the cariboo have been migrating across the mine’s waste dumps, seriously contaminating the Dene food supply. The Dene have requested, as part of their 14 points of resolution package, to have a comprehensive health, social and environmental assessment done in order to determine the extent of the damage and to have the Canadian government to acknowledge their responsibility in the decimation of their livlihood and culture.

Other issues the Déline Dene are hoping the government will address are:

  • immediate environmental clean-up
  • containment or removal of uranium waste
  • compensation for the widows
  • implementation of facilities and programs to promote Dene healing and spiritual/cultural development
  • re-negotiation of treaty settlement, which included land that the Canadian government knew was contaminated.

“Alberta and Ontario have compensated women of uranium miners, but not us,” says Kenny-Gilday. “But they are the government of Canada’s responsibility.”

When asked why the Dene are not just simply suing Canada, Kenny-Gilday states, “The Elders feel that they must give Canada more time to do this honorably because thus far they have not dealt with us in good faith. We must do this honorably.”

In a humble and dignified manner, the Déline Dene left for Hiroshima to extend their sympathies and regards to the Hibakusha and share in their suffering as victims of nuclear programs.