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Watershed Gathering Attracts Five Hundred


I have just returned from the Watershed Gathering at Wollaston Lake August 19th to 23rd. Five hundred people attended this event which was only accessible by plane or boat. Some Dene travelled four days by canoe to attend. Protecting water clearly draws on deep commitment.

This was the first such gathering in Saskatchewan. The Keepers of the Water group sponsoring the event formed in the Athabasca Watershed, mostly in response to the destructive impact of the tar-sands. Earlier gatherings have occurred at Fort Simpson, NWT in 2006, Fort St. John, B.C. in 2007, and Fort Chipewyan, Alberta in 2008. The one planned for Wollaston in 2009 was cancelled due to the H1N1 scare and rescheduled for this August, hosted by the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation. Next year’s gathering will be in Manitoba’s north.

Hatchet Lake Chief Bart Tsannie invited us “to share in all our community, our land, and our people have to offer.” We did and the hospitality was overwhelming; I’ve never eaten so much caribou. I was honoured to have been invited to speak to the assembly. Chief Tsannie asked us to “understand the role the clean water and a healthy ecosystem play in our quality of life” and to recognize that “all water is sacred.” He recognized the work of all councillors including Edward Benoanie who has been outspoken about the lack of benefits going to the north after decades of uranium mining. He also acknowledged Vice Chief Don Deranger of the Prince Albert Grand Council, which is working on a land-use plan for the Athabasca region. (Deranger wasn’t identified at the gathering as also being on Cameco’s Board.) All participants are beholding to the good work of event coordinator Brandy Smart and the hundreds of community volunteers who took care of all visitors.

Wollaston Lake was a fitting location. It is the largest lake within Saskatchewan’s borders and the largest fresh water lake anywhere flowing into two watersheds: the Arctic to the west and Hudson Bay to the east. The Lake is a spectacular creation of nature. That most people in southern Saskatchewan remain unaware of its power and beauty speaks legions about the two solitudes remaining in our neo-colonial era.

The gathering was an opportunity for Dene from across Canada’s northwest to sign a Memorandum of Understanding about protecting the waters that they share, and to “compare notes” on the impact of toxic tailings ponds at Alberta’s tar sands and at Saskatchewan’s uranium mines. It was an opportunity for southern environmental research-activists to dialogue with Dene who want to protect their sustainable land-based economy. It was the beginning of the important task of merging traditional knowledge with critical environmental science.


Most pertinent was the fact that the Wollaston region has the most concentrated uranium mining anywhere. Six mines operated by Cameco or Areva are just west or south of the hamlet of Wollaston Lake. Though these mines aren’t yet facing the international public stigma of the filthy tar-sands, the socio-economic and environmental realities of uranium mining are beginning to sink in.

The influence of the uranium industry is pervasive. Together Cameco and Areva contributed $15,000 toward the gathering. (Who knows my air-fare may have been paid by the uranium industry.) After the Chiefs spoke at their impressive opening ceremony, they gathered for a group photo. As I went over to take a picture of them in their splendid headdresses I noticed that the hockey scoreboard situated just to their right, behind them, had “Cameco” at the bottom. A little to the right was the Areva logo. At the main platform I noticed a large “Cameco” sign to the right of the podium where the Chiefs had just spoken. Cameco and Areva sponsored a meal at the culture camp, where they gave out small “made in China” flashlights stamped with Cameco and Areva logos. The flashlight battery was charged by renewable energy (pumping a small handle) which was somewhat ironic.

The industry was clearly trying to brand the community. Thankfully the planning group insisted that non-industry resource people be heard. Dr. Manuel Pino of the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico, who directs an American Indian Studies program and is researching the health effects of uranium mining, gave the first keynote address. Jamie Kneen of Minewatch and I started the session on the “nuclear debate”. I chronicled the contamination of water all along the nuclear fuel system, from radioactive tailings from uranium milling to radioactive hydrogen (tritium) going into Lake Ontario from nuclear plants. I highlighted the radioactive legacy in the Uranium City area, especially at the Gunnar mine on Lake Athabasca. I noted that there had been no fulfillment of the “duty to consult” with any of Saskatchewan’s uranium mines.

Our session was to end by 10:30 a.m. but it flowed into testimonies of elders which continued to 1 p.m. After that, as Vancouver writer Rita Wong put it, “A one hour elder’s panel on the conference schedule spontaneously expanded into over eight and a half hours of testimony over two days, as 23 elders spoke movingly of how important water is, how cancer caused by mining has killed many family members, how uranium mining and tar sands expansion is poisoning the land.” The cat was out of the bag.


Wollaston is in Treaty 10 territory, and many of the Elders and Chiefs spoke of the federal government abandoning its obligations to protect the Treaties. The federal transfer of natural resources to the provinces in the 1930s came up over and over. While the Treaties could provide a legal basis for creating a sustainable northern economy, they seem inconsequential in this corporate-branding environment. Sometimes I felt like I was living in the era of the Hudson Bay Company, where the Crown had empowered corporations to exploit the land and its peoples; though the HBC was more benign than today’s corporate neo-colonialism as it didn’t trade in toxic resources.

There’s a lot to do to protect northern watersheds. The implications of proposed tar-sands expansion in the Buffalo Narrows area of Saskatchewan and uranium mining exploration across the Alberta border from Cluff Lake need to be better understood and sustainable economic alternatives promoted. Northern communities need to have access to independent environmental science capacities so they are not dependent on industry-funded monitoring. Jobs based on renewable resources need to be created; Wollaston fish still have to be frozen and shipped to northern Manitoba for processing and packaging. When I was talking to Glen Strong who heads up the Athabasca Enterprise Corporation I pointed to the huge roof of the high school and said I could envisage thermal and photovoltaic (PV) panels providing hot water and electricity, making the community less dependent on propane. Someday an offshore island could have a wind farm, and a local economy that protects the water could flourish.

One motion passed at the end of the gathering spoke to all in attendance, whether from the north or south, Indigenous or settler background: “We the Elders call upon the leadership and grassroots community members of our watersheds to come together and to develop effective, holistic, and intergenerational strategies to protect the watershed for our future generations. We the Elders oppose the harmful actions that have transpired by industry and call upon and empower our young people and elected leaders to embrace traditional knowledge and take action that guides us in a new direction.”

Next week I’ll look at how conflicts of interest are interfering with finding this new direction.