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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.

Cheslatta Nation Goes to Court over Kemano

“Alcan is not obligated to spend a penny in the rehabilitation of the Nechako or the Cheslatta system. If Canada and B.C. is not committed, then Alcan is home free.”

Members of the Cheslatta Carrier Nation along with a group of Elders have filed a Statement of Claim with the Supreme Court of British Columbia in Prince George challenging all agreements and licenses granted to the Aluminum Company of Canada (Alcan) by the Canadian and British Columbian governments. These agreements and licenses allowed Alcan to construct and operate the highly controversial series of hydro-electric facilities and an aluminum smelter, known as the Kemano Projects, in north-central BC.

“We have run out of options. The only way to get Alcan Canada and B.C. to account for their actions is through the justice system,” said Chief Marvin Charlie. “We were not consulted in the 1950’s (Kemano I), we were not consulted in 1987 (Kemano II) and we weren’t consulted in 1997, which we now call Kemano III. Nobody was consulted – the farmers, the trappers, the municipalities, the commercial fishermen – nobody! Now we are expected to live with this forever – I don’t think so!”

The Kemano I Project resulted in the flooding of 120,000 acres of the Upper-Nechako Watershed, all within the Cheslatta Traditional Territory, and eventually removed approximately three-quarters of the natural flow of the Nechako River. The Nechako River is the largest tributary to the largest salmon-producing river in the world.

The Kemano II Project, an expansion of the first, was allowed to proceed when B.C. and Canada signed the infamous 1987 Settlement Agreement. In 1990, Kemano II became the first project in Canadian history to be granted an exemption from a federal environmental review process; an action later to be found illegal by a Senate-Commons Committee. Kemano II construction was subsequently halted by Alcan in 1997 who cited poor aluminum markets. In January of 1995, B.C. canceled the Kemano II project citing poor economic projections on behalf of the company.

Last August, under legal threats from Alcan, the B.C. government granted unprecedented rights and privileges to Alcan by signing the 1997 B.C./Alcan Agreement, which is now referred to as Kemano III. The B.C. government declared the Kemano II Project history.

Cheslatta claims that Kemano II is alive and well. With the 1997 Agreement, Alcan, who announced net profits for 1997 at $641,000,000, got everything they wanted and more. “Alcan is not obligated to spend a penny in the rehabilitation of the Nechako or the Cheslatta system. If Canada and B.C. is not committed, then Alcan is home free,” says Chief Charlie.

Since their forced relocation by Alcan and the Department of Indian Affairs (DIA) in 1952, the 85 members of Cheslatta live on scattered parcels of land in the Grassy Plains area 175 miles west of Prince George. In 1993, they concluded a long dispute with the DIA over the matter of how much they were compensated for the land and buildings at Cheslatta Lake. With two weeks notice, the people were ‘evacuated’ to higher ground, all of their homes and villages were burnt to the ground and their cemeteries washed into the lake.

Charlie said many band members live today in condemned homes and have high rates of alcoholism and drug addiction. Reclaiming their ancestral homeland is a way for the band to heal, he said.

Since 1956, the Cheslatta river and lake system have been used as a spillway channel to allow huge releases of water to enter the Nechako River below Cheslatta Falls. This has caused massive environmental damage.

The Cheslatta Carrier Nation is expecting widespread support for this court action from many groups including First Nations, municipalities, commercial fishermen, wildlife organizations, environmentalists and others that rely on a healthy Nechako River. The lawsuit seeks an injunction ordering the defendants to repair the damage they have done to the band’s land.

“The fact is the upper-Nechako River and its watershed is owned and operated by the Aluminum Company of Canada,” said Chief Charlie. “And up to now, nobody has been able to do a thing about it. Let’s hope to change that.”

Alberni School Victim Speaks Out

Lloyd Dolha

“He kicked the little girl and she fell down the stairs and died. That’s murder. There were other kids in the infirmary who had their appendix burst. That’s murder. Other children were beaten so badly they died. That’s murder. No one bothered to take them to the hospital.”

At least 150 people crowded into a conference room at a downtown Vancouver university campus to hear three survivors recount the gruesome murders they witnessed at a Port Alberni residential school. At the February public forum, the survivors also alleged the complicity of the RCMP in the deaths of school’s students.

In Simon Fraser University’s Harbour Centre, Harriet Nahanee, Dennis Talio and Harry Wilson, sat with downcast eyes as they prepared themselves to relive the haunting childhood memories of their youth before the gathered throng.

Nahanee, 62, explained that at the age of five, all of the children on her reserve were dragged kicking and screaming onto a RCMP gunboat. They were taken to the Ahousaht residential school. At the age of 10, she was taken to the Port Alberni residential school the same day that 300 other children, from along the coast, were brought. She said that some children immediately hid in corners frightened, while others cried uncontrollably. Children were punished for singing their traditional songs and speaking their own language. They were so poorly fed that they were beaten for stealing vegetables from the root cellar.

In speaking of the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of the administrators for four years, Nahanee’s voice began to quiver.

“I didn’t bring it to mind until 1984, when my daughter committed suicide. Then I began to look at myself. Why I was addicted to alcohol? Why I wasn’t a good parent?” When Nahanee visited a psychiatrist she told him, “I think the church and the government did this to us deliberately in order to take the land and resources. It was all about keeping us dysfunctional, to keep us dependent.”

Before speaking of the murder she witnessed at the age of 11, Nahanee stopped to compose herself and dry her eyes. “I didn’t consider it a murder because when you’re just a kid, it’s just another painful memory.”

On December 24, 1946, the school administrators told Nahanee she would not go home for the holidays because she didn’t bow her head in prayer. While in the playroom, she heard some shouting. Nahanee followed the sound and went to the bottom of a staircase and climbed them half way. She saw Mr. (Rev. A. E.) Caldwell, and a female supervisor at the top of the stairs. They were arguing about a little girl who was running up and down the stairs.

“Mr. Caldwell was always drunk. You could smell the liquor on his breath all the time.” While batting her eyelashes to hold back the tears, Nahanee continued telling her nightmare.

“He kicked the little girl and she fell down the stairs and died. That’s murder. There were other kids in the infirmary who had their appendix burst. That’s murder. Other children were beaten so badly they died. That’s murder. No one bothered to take them to the hospital.”

“The worst part of it was the loneliness. When you’re a little kid and you can’t reach out to your mom for a hug – it really hurts. It’s a wound for a lifetime,” said Nahanee.

Wilson of Bella Bella, 45, was sent to the Port Alberni residential school in 1961 at the age of seven, where he was molested by then administrator Arthur Plint for five years.

In 1967, he had discovered a body of a 16-year-old girl, completely naked and covered in blood. He found the janitor who said he would call the RCMP. Wilson does not remember the RCMP arriving at the scene. “The girl’s body disappeared. I can’t remember her name but she was from up north somewhere. There was no investigation. I believe it was a cover-up,” said Wilson.

When Talio, 40, also from Bella Bella, took the podium, he spoke in a voice so low that at times it was difficult to hear what he had to say. Talio spoke of the abuse he suffered at the hands of Arthur Plint between the years 1962-1967. In 1965, Talio had discovered the remains of a girl between the ages of seven to nine, who had been sexually assaulted. He alleged that RCMP officials had warned him to keep his mouth shut.

At one point, his voice rising to a quivering pitch, he asked the audience, “Have any of you ever been beaten with a horse’s harness whip? Sometimes I can still hear those screams from young girls, even the boys, who Mr. Plint sexually assaulted. During those years at school I couldn’t help; but I still can’t get those screams out of my head,” said Talio.

Former United Church minister Kevin Annett was fired and de-listed by the church after he unearthed evidence of murders at the Port Alberni residential school.

“I had to lose my job. I had to lose my marriage and my children in order to try to understand what we did,” said Annett, who partook in the forum.

The United Church schools in Port Alberni and Ahousaht were situated on some of the richest resources in the area. “In Ahousaht, there are some of the oldest Red Cedar stands, and in Port Alberni, at the mouth of Somass (river), is a major salmon fishing ground,” said Annett.

Annett quoted a letter from a veteran bureaucrat, DIA superintendent Duncan Campbell Scott. In part, it stated: “The residential schools cannot be located to close to the Indian reserves because then the children will stay on their own land, and as you know, we must open this land up for exploitation.”

The three survivors are involved in Canada’s first civil lawsuit, held in Nanaimo, on Indian residential school abuse. Their case will decide whether the federal government and the United Church should be held vicariously liable (financially accountable) for abuses committed by school staff. If the church and government art found liable, the trial will move into its second phase of deciding the amount of money that will be awarded to the plaintiffs. Hundreds of similar lawsuits are pending across Canada on the court’s decision.

For the second time since his de-listing hearing, Annett has requested the Attorney General to begin an investigation into the proceedings. In a letter to Attorney General Dosanjh, dated March 9, 1998, Annett wrote:

“Since the maintenance of human rights in B.C. is within your portfolio…I fail to see why you are unable to investigate what I have experienced to be a gross violation of my legal and human rights…I am quite concerned that your refusal to examine my case is a consequence of the political influence of the United Church of Canada within the NDP government in the form of such key actors as Rev. John Cashore and Tim Stephenson.”

Annett was fired without cause or review in January 1995, from his Port Alberni church and was subsequently expelled from the ministry after a lengthy and expensive trial without ever being charged or given cause for his removal.

Annett plans to take his case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission if Dosanjh refuses to investigate. Annett has also filed a legal writ of notice prior to his impending lawsuit against the United Church.

Aboriginal Cultural Festival Celebrates Unity

Ronald R. Barbour

When nations that are historically and traditionally at odds, or even at war, put aside their differences to come together and celebrate their similarities, culture and uniqueness – it must be another Aboriginal Cultural Festival.

The 5th Annual Aboriginal Cultural Festival brought together many nations representative of the vast diversity of the West Coast First Nations. People were drawn from their own lands to come to Coast Salish territory to join in this celebration of culture including the Dene, the Haida, the Kwakiutl, Nisga’a, Gitksan, Cree, and Ojibwe. It does the heart good to see this festive gathering of nations and peoples. The theme of, “Bringing the people together” made its indelible mark on the minds of the thousands that came to Squamish territory to witness this event.

This year’s festival marked a significant change from the venues where the festival had been held previous years – the Pacific Coliseum and the Plaza of Nations. The organizers, led by Festival Coordinator Rose Holzer-Tambour, took the festival to a place where many think it should have been from the beginning – out in the open, communing with the forces of nature.

“The concept was to come over to Squamish Territory and form a working relationship with Squamish Nation,” says Holzer-Tambour. “[This] is a first step for the urban Aboriginal community such as the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre and organize an event in conjunction with their territory.”

For those with a penchant for soaking in West Coast style song and dance, the new festival site at the Squamish Nation’s Capilano Longhouse provided an ideal location.

“It’s very traditional, it’s much more comfortable than the Coliseum.” states Holzer-Tambour of the Longhouse. “It was one of the big highlights for this year’s events.”

In a great ceremony of respect and protocol, many honours were bestowed upon some of the dignitaries and elders that graced the festival. Venerable elders Khot La Cha (Chief Simon Baker), who welcomed everyone to his traditional territory and then delivered the invocation after the opening night’s grand entry; elder and spokesperson for the Burrard Band, Bob George, and Musqueam elder, Vince Stogan (who was not present due to illness in the family) were honoured and recognized for serving their communities and their distinguished work for all First Nations.

“How many drums have we heard today? Twenty? Thirty?” George asked the crowd rhetorically after accepting his gifts. “What about 30,000 – that could make a sound that could be heard around the world.

Bristling with emotion and punctuating his words with clenched fists, George brought the Longhouse down when he asserted emphatically that we had to stop fighting each other and unite.

“It is through this unity that will make us strong,” urged George.

Truly the Great Spirit must have moved through his body and touched everyone that was present, and the words he spoke of unity with purity of mind and spirit truly proved he is his father’s son.

The Pow-Wow itinerary held in the sports fields that was not even a stone’s throw from the Longhouse, kept those in the mood for fancy dancing, traditional and glass dances, enthralled throughout the weekend.

When asked about the success of the Festival, Holzer-Tambour smiled and let out a huge sigh of relief.

“It was very exciting,” beamed Holzer-Tambor. “It was very authentic and it was a very special.”

It seemed that the most difficulty anyone had was deciding between the watching the dancing, hearing the singing or witnessing the fascinating events inside the Longhouse.