On August 16th several hundred people walked the green mile along Regina’s Albert Street, taking their call for a provincial nuclear waste ban to the government. They want an end to the industry group, the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), negotiating with northern communities to “host” a nuclear dump without the people of Saskatchewan having any say.
This was the completion of a 20-day, 820 km walk started July 27th from Pinehouse. Along the way walkers made new friendships and networks that bring the north and south closer together. At the front of the colourful parade was a big, blue balloon “earth” encircled by cutouts of the world’s children holding hands. There was much magic as I watched, over the heads of the block-long string of people in front of me, as “the earth” bobbed up and down as its carriers led the way.
And then I remembered a similar walk, thirty-two years ago, on February 22, 1979. Then, walkers carried a huge white elephant, made of paper-mache, to symbolize what they thought of the government’s uranium policies of the day. How much longer, I thought, will it take for us to learn the hard lessons about the toxic economy and start to seriously make the shift towards sustainability?
THEN AND NOW
The 1979 walk occurred as the Blakeney NDP ramped up for a nuclear power “boom”, which would increase demand for Saskatchewan uranium fuel. Nuclear power was deceptively promoted as the answer to ever-more expensive oil, even though it was mostly cheap coal that was used for electrical plants. The high-grade uranium at the Cluff Lake mine was already being mined and lakes at the even-bigger Key Lake mine were being drained, even before an environmental assessment. The Blakeney government was also initiating discussions with “the feds” to have a uranium refinery near the Mennonite town Warman, out of Saskatoon; and, as we found out later, was secretly laying plans to introduce nuclear power to the province.
The nuclear expansion never occurred. Widespread opposition stopped the Warman refinery in 1980. And in the wake of growing public opposition to nuclear power, especially after the 1979 Three Mile Island melt-down, Blakeney shelved plans for nuclear power.
Blakeney lost badly to the Conservatives in 1981. He and his mandarins miscalculated. The uranium royalties turned out to be even smaller than the lowest projections, and in 1988 Grant Devine’s Conservatives privatized the uranium crown corporation, the SMDC, which become Cameco. After huge public infrastructure investments, Cameco went on to rake in profits, as the more cheaply-recoverable, higher-grade uranium made Saskatchewan the world’s largest producing region.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Blakeney’s vision of uranium-wealth trickling down to northern communities never materialized. While some individuals got high-paying jobs, overall, northern Saskatchewan remains the second poorest region in Canada. And stories multiply of increased sicknesses and cancers among some of those who worked the mines.
Now it’s back to the future, with the Wall government initiating its own nuclear expansion plan by appointing the Uranium Development Partnership or UDP. That group included the very companies that would profit, and predictably it recommended we “go nuclear”. This didn’t just include building nuclear power plants (UDP member, Ontario’s Bruce Power, was already promoting two plants along the North Saskatchewan River), but bringing nuclear waste here from Ontario.
Though the Wall government ultimately had to abandon Bruce Power’s unpopular, uneconomical plan, which turned out to be tied to projected tar-sand expansion, the industry continued working “under the radar” to try to convince an impoverished northern community to “host” a nuclear dump.
In October groups within the Coalition for a Clean Green Saskatchewan (e.g. the ecumenical group KAIROS, the Council of Canadians and the Greens), met in Fort Qu’Appelle to discuss a nuclear waste campaign. In November province-wide Coalition members met in Saskatoon to hammer-out policy. (Go to www.cleangreensask.ca for details). In December the first community forum was held, in Wynyard, along the Yellow Head route likely if nuclear wastes ever come from Ontario. In February two Fort Qu’Appelle KAIROS members set out in a winter blizzard to attend community forums along the route, in Prince Albert and La Ronge, with “a detour” for a forum in Saskatoon, the headquarters of the nuclear industry in Saskatchewan. Many hundreds attended.
But this was still southerners expressing opposition to a northern nuclear dump. Those supporting the industry could play this off as “southerners depriving northerners of jobs.” Meanwhile NWMO was busy buying its way into northern communities like Pinehouse and Paturnak. There have been big payments to provincial Indigenous organizations and self-appointed “elders” getting per diems. There were meetings purportedly to discuss the northern youth crisis that turned into NWMO promotions. Outrage at such manipulation has grown.
Things changed when the new Committee for Future Generations sponsored the first northern community forum June 2nd in Beauval. Two hundred people, mostly from ten northern communities, attended. After hearing “both sides” they voted against a nuclear dump. NWMO talks glibly of northern consultation, but refused to attend the forum, so organizers played NWMO videos so that the industry voice was fairly represented.
Another community forum occurred July 26th in Pinehouse. The next day 30 walkers set out for Regina. Within three short months a northern voice opposing the dump had formed, spread and come all the way to the province’s capital.
A RUDE AWAKENING
It is quite a feat to walk 820 km; the walk was far longer than ones led by Gandhi in the nonviolent struggle for India’s independence. But when the walkers and their supporters arrived at the Legislature August 16th there was only a government staffer present. He said nothing! There was no Premier and no Deputy Premier! No official welcome, even though they were informed prior to this marathon walk starting.
I heard some people comment that it was rude for the Premier to not greet the northern walkers, if for no other reason than to acknowledge their endurance. Their message, that sustaining the environmental heath of northern people is more important than toxic jobs, says a lot about character and vision. One banner on one of the trucks accompanying the walkers said, bluntly, “We don’t want your death money.”
ONE SASKATCHEWAN/ONE WORLD
The walkers emphasized “one Saskatchewan”. They gathered water from along the way and mixed it with Regina’s water to symbolize our natural unity. I participated in the circle water ceremony at Lumsden where I joined the walkers. This message of “one Saskatchewan”, coming from northerners who have endured uranium mining since the 1950s, is a message that needs to be heard by politicians of all stripes.
When southerners speak of “one Saskatchewan” it’s often seen as government and industry needing northern resources for revenue and profit. And there are usually some northern spokespeople available to promote the trickle-down of a small amount of the wealth to the north. These same people are now supporting northern Saskatchewan taking Ontario’s nuclear wastes, as though this is a way to provide jobs for their growing youth. Such promotion of a toxic economy makes past colonialism seem benign.
It’s to the credit of the official opposition, the NDP caucus, that it sent its Environmental Critic, Sandra Morin, to welcome the walkers. And Morin was clear that an NDP government would not allow a nuclear dump in the north. This took its own form of bravery, for if the NDP opposes a dump, then how will it continue to justify mining the uranium that turns into nuclear wastes after being used as reactor fuel? Or, that turns into the dangerous radioactive contamination still spreading after the melt-downs at Japan’s Fukushima’s reactors, which import uranium from here?
This raises many moral and political questions which I’ll explore next time.