Sacred land, unholy uranium: Canada's mining industry in conflict with First Nations

The Denesuline have long suffered and protested against the treatment of their people from industrial organisations causing damage to their territories and the environment. Photo: ItzaFineDay via Flickr (CC BY)
The Denesuline have long suffered and protested against the treatment of their people from industrial organisations causing damage to their territories and the environment. Photo: ItzaFineDay via Flickr (CC BY)
For Saskatchewan, uranium is an important part of the economy, but for the province's indigenous peoples, the land is everything. It is filled with relationships between beings who dwell together in an interconnected web. Their traditional ecological knowledge is not just a set of terms or data, but a deep, broadly-viewed reality which contains systematic respect for all creation.
To cite favor with the seven generations teachings while promoting nuclear energy is inconsistent at best and at worst denigrates and belittles the value of Traditional Knowledge and First Nations cultures, beliefs and spiritual understanding.

Saskatchewan is generally known for prairie farmland, but its northern half presents quite a different picture. A vast blanket of forest covers the north and here you will find the Athabasca Basin, which yields the world's purest uranium ore.

The dense dark rock called pitchblende can be found with uranium levels reaching 18%, which is unparalleled anywhere else in the world. Both government and industry seek to expand uranium mining activities in the name of progress and profit, yet there are indigenous peoples here who present a different perspective.

The Denesuline have occupied this region for thousands of years and have a right to question the extraction of this mineral from their traditional lands. They have grave concerns about the impacts and the violation of their territories.

Saskatchewan's Athabasca Basin currently supplies about 20% of the global uranium market. It is mined out in ore 10 to 100 times more uranium rich than any other deposits found on Earth. This is of much interest to industry and government as it results in the creation of several thousand jobs and significant impacts on the economy.

Some years the value of production has exceeded one billion dollars, which nets about 100 million dollars in royalties for the provincial government. With such high stakes, it is easy to see how any aboriginal opposition might be unwelcome, yet there have always been some who, from the perspective of traditional ecological values, question the practice of uranium mining.

The Dene's holistic relationship with the land has been ignored

From an indigenous perspective, a large scope of relationships that span across time and space need to be considered. Elders are concerned about the future and about our relationship to the land. To the Dene, uranium is more than a profitable element; it is also a powerful entity.

It is our relationship to the natural world that determines our values and actions towards it. At the very core of the cultural disjuncture between indigenous peoples and settler society is an entirely different relationship with the land. Canada was colonized on the principle terra nullius. This Latin term means the land is empty and belongs to no one, so this perception paved the way to a legacy of land-based domination and exploitation.

Although legal status of Canada's indigenous peoples and their territories is now enshrined by the courts and constitution, the neo-colonial activities of industry and governments continue. They ignore the core cultural value of seeing the land as a living entity worthy of rights and respect.

Land domination continues and corporate bodies engaging in resource extraction are still operating under the assumption that there is nothing wrong with taking what is there to be discovered and claimed in a vast unoccupied wilderness.

To cite favor with the seven generations teachings while promoting nuclear energy is inconsistent at best and at worst denigrates and belittles the value of Traditional Knowledge and First Nations cultures, beliefs and spiritual understanding.

Industry proponents often find themselves frustrated in what they perceive to be ignorant resistance from aboriginal groups, when it is actually their own inability to shift their social-spiritual perspective that causes the discord. It is a fundamental principle in indigenous cosmology that the entire landscape is alive with spiritual energy which exists in all entities, and flows in reciprocal directions as relationships between everything.

It is important to understand rocks are included in this web as sacred beings emerging from the landscape who have their own characteristics and power.

In her ethnographic work with the Dene elders in the Northwest Territories, Allice Legat has come to understand and articulate what the Thcho Dene in NWT call dè, which she defines as "everything that is associated with land, ground, dirt, earth' and with whom Thcho have a relationship that is responsive to their attention, action and behaviour."

Contrary to the concept of terra nullius, it becomes apparent the Dene worldview rejects notions of discovery, claim or domination over land as disrespectful behaviour. Legat quotes Elder Phillip Zoe: "There are no empty spaces. All spaces are used by something: fox, fish, trees, humans, wind, northern lights. It might look empty but all the dè is used."

The lay of the land tells the history

Within the one occupies space, but also intersects with others. Learning is experiential, and one walks through the land, through trails and intersections, both mental and physical, in a web of relationships in a process of continually learning, and contributing to co-creation where past and present are woven together.

Legat describes this as an inclusive knowledge system in which contemporary information is integrated into the present to join the past. She explains what elders have taught her about temporal integration within the : "Because most people do not know the future, remembering the stories of the past may be a matter of survival for themselves and for the dè.

"They emphasize that the past, including the ancestors, who continue to walk the land, is as much as part of the present as industrial developments, government-run schools, and government legislation. They stress the importance of knowing a little and continually increasing one's knowledge for respecting and maintaining relationships with all that is part of the dè."

This perspective gives way to an expansive view of both space and time, where the past and future exist alongside the present. There is deep concern for respectful relationships of a much wider scope than any corporate planning or government initiative could possibly allow or manage. Indigenous concerns about the environment and future generations are centred in their desire to maintain good relationships with all beings: past, present and future.

Due to harmful and particularly long lasting dangers, the nuclear industry falls short of being able to acknowledge its impact on this vast temporal-spatial scale. In addition, each segment of the nuclear fuel chain is presented as a compartmentalized island which is not accountable beyond a small set of parameters.

From an indigenous perspective this presents a series of dysfunctional relationships which are spiralling out of control in their affects through space and time. Evidence exists as a global trail of destruction including: abandoned mines, tailing pond hazards, water contamination, reactor meltdowns, and the growing stockpiles of nuclear waste which threaten the entire biosphere.

The land must be cared for and treated with respect, nuclear power does not allow this

Canadian industry proponents have been trying to create dialogue with aboriginal peoples in an attempt to find cooperation for mining expansion and nuclear waste storage. It is not surprising that misunderstandings arise because indigenous people have concerns about what will happen thousands of years from now, and corporations are largely focused on the next quarter.

The Assembly of First Nations reported to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization that attempts to incorporate indigenous knowledge into their own agenda is selective, misguided and incompatible: "NWMO has expressed an interest in the First Nations' philosophy that requires decision makers to consider the impacts of their decisions seven generations hence.

"The use of the seven generations teaching in this manner overlooks the fact that disposing of nuclear fuel waste will continue beyond seven generations. The decisions we make today will impact the future. From a First Nations' perspective the environment must be considered holistically, as opposed to segregating parts of it into dispensable units that are somehow unconnected to the rest of the environment.

"To cite favor with the seven generations teachings while at the same time promoting nuclear energy is inconsistent at best and at worst denigrates and belittles the value of Traditional Knowledge and First Nations cultures, beliefs and spiritual understandings."

The large quantity of radiotoxic waste created by the nuclear industry shows that the long term impacts have not fully been considered. Based on the potential implications far into the future, it will always conflict with maintaining respectful relationships on the land.

The problems with radioactive materials

What begins as rock in Northern Saskatchewan ends up as part of a global system of corporate profits, tragic accidents and military strikes. In his book, Canada's Deadly Secret, Dr. Jim Harding takes a comprehensive look at the nuclear fuel chain, and notes how it is connected to "low level nuclear war" which has been occurring since the 1990's.

Dr. Harding, an emeritus professor of environmental / justice studies at the University of Regina, asserts we cannot deny the connection between Saskatchewan's uranium exports and the creation of depleted uranium bullets, which have been used in the US arsenal for the past two decades. The use of uranium metal in munitions is an ethically questionable practice, because tragically it appears these are weapons which fire inter-generational rounds, targeting those not yet born.

Since the Gulf War, alarmingly increasing levels of miscarriages and birth defects in Iraqi families steadily point to uranium exposure from the use of DU weaponry. In one hospital, congenital malformations are being found in 15% of all births, and multiple studies confirm that toxicity rates of lead, mercury and uranium significantly rose after heavy bombing by US forces in 2004. Proponents claim Saskatchewan's pitchblende is mined solely for peaceful purposes yet this is untrue.

The waste is used for war. Part of the uranium coming out of Canadian style reactors becomes plutonium and is used in warheads; part of the uranium that is kept out of American style reactors is turned into uranium metal and used in DU munitions.

Clearly, using an element in such a destructive way that it harms unborn babies and threatens us all is not concurrent with the holistic views of indigenous ecology.

Uranium - the powerful deity

This is of great concern to those who have been taught to respect rock for its metaphysical properties. From a Dene perspective, the disturbance of uranium ore from its natural place within the landscape is source of the problem because it is a spirit which is powerful, and potentially dangerous if disrespected.

Near Yellowknife, the Thcho Dene Elders recall how Rayrock Mine was once a hill known for being "filled with happy spirits, where hunters who traveled and hunted there would feel like singing... and even though the mine is now closed, the happiness causing one to want to sing has not returned".

In the Athabasca Basin, a similar understanding emerges about positive and negative relations with uranium. Traditional knowledge keeper, Susnaghe Neneh, who comes from the Poplar Tree Home People, opposes the mining of pitchblende and explains how it is related to his ancestral teachings.

He recalls his grandfather forbid everyone from touching the 'the black stone,' and he points to the significance of this in prophesies of the Denesuline oral tradition. He explains how his grandfather's lessons give another layer of understanding about uranium: "To us it was more than that. It was literally a deity, a god, or something that had a type of sacred connection to us. So it was in that sense that we understood the black stone.

"Like water, it was the same thing. Or a plant. My grandfather worked as a herbalist also, and forbade us to talk about plants like you would ordinarily talk about anything. He said never ever mention a plant as a plant. It was a deity. It was powerful. So in that type of worldview we learned to accept the conditions of the natural world that way."

Today his grandfather's trap line is gone and the world's largest uranium mill sits in its place. It is ancient prophesies about unleashing demons that concern him the most because despite having warned everyone, his grandfather's perspective was not taken seriously. He asks:

"How could we convince the mining companies coming in that the uranium that they were touching should not be used in any way, otherwise it will go into the annals of legends which describe very dire situations?".

There seems to be little more dire than a global arsenal of warheads, or the faces of babies born with fractured DNA. The elders point to ghost towns like Uranium City or Fukushima as proof that this mining leads to negative outcomes.

The pro-nuclear agenda and the Government

Despite any concerns the Denesuline may have about the extraction of uranium from the Athabasca Basin, both industry and government continue to partner in a pro-nuclear agenda that dominates the direction of economic and educational development in Northern Saskatchewan.

At his 2013 Premier's Dinner, Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall admitted his government's support in this radioactive colonialism by saying: "The best program for First Nations and Metis people in Saskatchewan is not a program at all - it's Cameco! It's a job in the north, it's a chance to engage in the prosperity we see in Saskatchewan."

Wall's statement shows the cosy relationship his government has with the world's largest privately-traded uranium mining company.

It raises questions about the ethical governance of Crown Lands. A number of people were outraged by his cultural insensitivity and blatant disregard for aboriginal self-determination, finding this to be in contradiction with The United Nations Declaration of Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which supports the Denesuline in their "right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for exercising their right to development".

Over 50 years of uranium mining has brought little prosperity to the Denesuline. Isolated communities like La Loche and Black Lake struggle in systematic poverty while the pitchblende is making billions. Perhaps some think indigenous peoples' reluctance towards the mining is based on ignorance, but that is inaccurate. Although they never touched the pitchblende, some Dene groups ceremonially mined copper and silver.

From sea to sea there was a "complex system of resource extraction, manufacture and trade [which] suggests a long history of effective resource management and economic integration across Aboriginal America". To offer uranium mining as Northerners' only chance for prosperity is a direct insult to cultural values and traditional ecological knowledge.

The future of nuclear in Canada

First Nations groups are not alone in their skepticism of the nuclear industry. There is a worldwide growing body of informed individuals who recognize the need to stop using uranium as a fuel source. Despite a green veneer, the nuclear industry continues to lag in the energy market because it is dangerous and expensive.

Mark Bigland-Pritchard, an energy consultant and technical researcher for Clean Energy Saskatchewan, points out that true cost of nuclear energy is much higher than it appears-when accounting for backend costs it is more expensive than renewables, emits more greenhouse gases, and is far more problematic because of "toxic emissions, health implications, waste issues and nuclear weapons proliferation".

With renewable technology now bringing us such great options in solar, wind and geothermal, it doesn't make sense to invest in aged atomic ideas. Can we move forward and build something positive for future generations?

The Canadian federal and provincial governments would benefit from better understanding what indigenous peoples are voicing about resource extraction. Current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is claiming he will renew his government's relationship with indigenous peoples. Will he consider that they want clean green energy?

Ottawa and the provincial governments need to protect the environment and start creating more jobs in the renewables sector. There are many First Nations wanting to develop their communities in positive ways. They want to leave a good world for their grandchildren and assert a sacred responsibility to protect the land from harm.

For Saskatchewan, uranium is an important part of the economy, but for the Denesuline, the land is everything. It is filled with relationships between beings who dwell together in an interconnected web. Their traditional ecological knowledge is not just a set of terms or data, but a deep, broadly-viewed reality which contains systematic respect for all creation.

It encompasses the past and the future into the present, and it is firmly grounded in the land. The Denesuline know their traditional territory better than anyone and they also know the uranium industry is hurting it. The tailing ponds are growing and so are concerns for the ramifications through time and space.

The ones who know the land best say there is an urgency to come together in an understanding, to protect future generations from harm. They say the land is calling, and it is time for us to hear.



The Committee for Future Generations was formed on May 16, 2011 by a group of citizens concerned that northern Saskatchewan communities are being aggressively targeted by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) to store Canada's nuclear waste. Visit their website and Facebook page to find out more.

This article was originally published by DiaNuke under a Creative Commons licence (CC BY-NC).