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Why Colonial Mentality Can't Get Us To Sustainability


The nuclear industry is going around the north promoting a nuclear dump as if this was the way to bring development to an impoverished region. $1,000,000 has already been provided by the NWMO to the FSIN, supposedly to help First Nations develop capacity for informed consent about a nuclear dump. But why isn’t a million dollars available to look at sustainable economic options, like more renewable energy in the north? The dice always seemed to be loaded and it is beginning to look like those driving the resource extraction agenda need the north to be impoverished, so that there is less opposition when environmentally-dangerous mega-projects like a nuclear dump get proposed.

Neo-colonial development follows a similar pattern everywhere. Impoverished regions provide a cheap labour pool for lucrative resource extraction. Corporations offer “benefits” to local people that end up benefitting the corporations. Colonial mentality comes, hand-in-hand, with this. Countries even break up over the deep contradictions; we just witnessed the resource rich but impoverished south Sudan vote overwhelmingly for independence, after a vicious civil war with the more politically and economically powerful north.


These neo-colonial realities were evident to me on a recent trip to community forums on a nuclear waste ban. Jim Sinclair, respected for helping get “native rights” into the Charter of Rights, and now the Saskatchewan person on the NWMO’s elder group, Niigani, attended these forums in Saskatoon, La Ronge and Prince Albert. Several times he commented that at least this time northerners were being consulted and given a choice whether or not to host a nuclear dump. When you contrast NWMO’s “consultation”, with previous uranium mining inquiries that ignored aboriginal rights and told Indigenous leaders to “take it or leave it”, the present approach may seem an improvement.

However the monetary inducements have to be factored in. Industry money going to both FSIN and Métis Nation leaders does not end up looking like “free, prior, informed consent” and can even be seen as a form of bribery. Certainly it can create more economic dependency of some leaders on industry money. And it continues to undermine Treaty Rights. In its recommendations to the NWMO the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) said: “The NWMO is not an agent of the Crown and therefore cannot fulfill the Crown’s fiduciary obligations to First Nations…It is the opinion of the AFN that the federal government holds the obligations to consult and that this obligation cannot be delegated to non-government organizations such as the NWMO.”


It is challenging to disentangle just what maintains and what transforms colonial relations. Self-determination would require northern Métis and First Nations governance deciding what kind of development plan northerner’s wanted. That is not what is happening with the proposed nuclear dump. In 1978 the Cluff Lake Board of Inquiry recommended that there be resource revenue-sharing with the north and that a Northern Development Board be created to give northerners a direct say in what kind of development occurred. I can’t imagine northerners even taking the time to consider a nuclear dump if these recommendations had been followed.

It is easy to forget that such a dangerous mega-project wouldn’t just add a few benefits like jobs. It would also undercut existing land uses and future prospects like eco-tourism. Maps on actual land use in the Pinehouse area, compiled with the help of the late community worker, Marie Symes Grehan, showed widespread economic activity in the area. What do you think would happen to this local economy after the excavation and road construction required to transport 18,000 truckloads of nuclear wastes to the region? Even without a nuclear dump the north is being treated like the back yard of the uranium-nuclear industry. The French uranium company Areva has applied to drive huge uranium ore-bearing trucks for the 17-hour, 900 km trip from the McArthur River mine all the way south to La Ronge and then back up the east-side road to their mill at McClean Lake. Northerners who worry about Areva’s plan should think twice about what a nuclear dump would do to the north.


Both the south and north suffer from colonial mentality. Many southerners take it for granted that northern resources will forever be extracted to help keep the provincial economy growing and government revenues coming in. There is little knowledge or apparent concern about the striking lack of benefits to the north. Even with the so-called “uranium boom” the north remains Canada’s second poorest region. And it is shameful that in the province that brought Canada universally accessible Medicare, the north has the lowest per capita of doctors in all Canada. This colonial mentality will also have to change for us to create sustainable alternatives in the south. Multinationals that dominate agriculture also have a neo-colonial relationship to the province. In the aftermath of the failed takeover bid by BHP Billiton, Potash Corp has made a pledge to increase jobs from 209 to 300 and to locate five more of its top executives in Saskatoon. This sounds pretty token when you realize that, according to the February 15, 2011 Leader Post, the corporation last year only paid $76.5 million in tax revenues while earning $1.8 billion. This reminds me of what past Hatchet Lake Chief, Ed Benoanie, said about uranium mines near his home on Wollaston Lake: “A few people from the community work there... We do approach them every now and then. And they come back with little handouts every now and then – to keep you quiet.”


Perhaps as southerners begin to wake up to the threat that a nuclear waste dump presents all along the Trans-Canada, Yellowhead and number 2 highways into Prince Albert and the north, more people will begin to see the need for sustainable development alternatives. Perhaps! Understandably, some northerners are concerned that some southerners who are vocal in their opposition to the transportation of nuclear wastes through their communities will remain silent about the desperate need for sustainable options in the north. We can’t let this happen! Meanwhile some northerners are clearly still tempted by the nuclear dump. I heard one northerner say that he doesn’t want southerner’s interfering in this matter, as though this would itself be “colonial”. I was a bit surprised that environment and development NGO’S could be considered “colonial”, when the uranium-nuclear industry is steadily making the north into a “nuclear colony.” This shows how mixed up this controversy can become. We still have a lot to sort out.

Southern communities have a democratic right and responsibility to question high-level nuclear wastes coming through their communities. Northerners have a right to demand that they get more control of development that truly is beneficial and sustainable. But it would not at all serve the common interests of protecting Mother Earth for us to polarize over a nuclear dump, as though this presents the kind of sustainable option that the north needs and deserves.

As part of the work to ban nuclear wastes coming into Saskatchewan, southerners and northerners will have to better work together to decolonize the province, so that some positive economic options that will truly benefit the north are finally put on the table. The nuclear waste controversy may, at best, help us all better see the need for this more fundamental change.

Next time I’ll look at the back story to the Harper government’s funding cuts to the ecumenical coalition KAIROS.