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Restoration of abandoned Mid-Canada military sites reaches Eeyou Istchee

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 16, 2024

Abandoned former military sites of the Mid-Canada Line are finally getting cleaned up in Eeyou Istchee. The initial work planned for this summer will focus on smaller sites near Chisasibi and Whapmagoostui.

Completed at the height of the Cold War, the Mid-Canada Line was a series of unmanned radar bases built about 50 kilometres apart along the 55th parallel as an early warning system against Soviet bombers. However, development of inter-continental ballistic missiles made it obsolete even as it became operational in 1958. The line was abandoned in 1965, to be replaced by Distant Early Warning sites in the Far North.   

During decades of lobbying by First Nations to address the decayed bases, federal and provincial governments argued over who was responsible for the costly cleanups. While sites in all other provinces have already been removed, Quebec will finally begin work on its 42 sites this summer, led by the Cree, Inuit and Naskapi nations where the remains endanger local ecosystems. 

“The first step of the cleanup is to remove the physical debris,” said Kristy Franks, an environmental advisor at the Cree Nation Government. “After, there will be soil remediation because in some cases the land has been contaminated by fuel drums that leaked or old batteries left behind.”

The seven sites deemed easiest for the pilot project are located near waterways that simplify removal by helicopter, float plane or boat. Among the four under Cree responsibility, three are on Whapmagoostui traplines and one is on the trapline of Chisasibi tallyman Reggie Scipio at Seal River (CH-7).  

Scipio had his first meeting with the Mid-Canada group in February 2023, when planning for the work and budget began along with CNG and Chisasibi representatives. As site rehabilitation expert Mathieu Préfontaine estimates the Waapiskuuchii site can be completed in 14 days, preparations are already underway for securing the necessary supplies and 8 to 10 workers.

“The plan from the start was it’s on Cree territory and the Crees can do their own cleanup,” Scipio told the Nation. “On this site, it’s bedrock so there’s not really any chance for contamination. There are no machines needed – it’s basically manpower to cut the pipe and put it all together in those big white concrete bags for the helicopters.”

After helicopters transport the material to the community, trucks will take it to treatment centres. Whapmagoostui cleanups are more complicated because of its lack of road access. Once the debris is removed, specialists can measure the extent of soil and water contamination.

On this relatively smaller site, there was a pump station with a pipeline that went to the shore where ships would pump up fuel. A substantially bigger job awaits at another part of Scipio’s trapline, Cape Jones, which still features two tall radar stations, remnants of buildings, huge fuel tanks and an abundance of 45-gallon drum tanks. 

“They said Cape Jones will be a two-year job, but we think it’s going to be more,” said Scipio. “They didn’t really get the full story in consideration of what the Elders witnessed. My dad saw a bigger pond filled with 45-gallon drums as much as possible, then they just covered it.”

Scipio provides regular updates about the project to his 89-year-old father, Harry Scipio, along with an uncle and other concerned Elders. Around 1953, Harry Scipio was out hunting for seals by dogsled when he saw the first helicopter fly into Cape Jones. His brother Simon went with Daniel and Sandy Snowboy a few days later and discovered there was going to be work done. 

“People started going there and were hired to do small construction on the camps,” Scipio explained. “During the winter, they would get some food when they’d visit. My dad worked there – he doesn’t remember if it was a week or two, but it was $82.”

When the Mid-Canada Line was decommissioned, detection antennas that were sometimes taller than 100 metres were dismantled to eliminate aviation hazards. More valuable materials were removed in the 1970s. After the sites were ceded to Quebec, Indian Affairs opened outfitting camps where many Cree worked as guides. 

Growing up, Scipio remembers hunting near the radar station for ducks and snow geese. At a nearby lake where the birds landed, people were fishing and setting up nets when they noticed 45-gallon tanks in the water and all around the lake.

“They didn’t really fish after that on that lake,” recalled Scipio. “I’m sure it’s contaminated now with the rust and everything and some had fuel in them. I’m sure the wildlife was affected because they’re all over there, especially in the winter.”

About 15 years ago, Scipio saw the results of restoration efforts when he worked a few weeks at a Mid-Canada site on Bear Island, located 60 km northwest of Chisasibi. The two-year cleanup estimated at $11 million removed a variety of metals, barrels, batteries and toxic soil full of polychlorinated biphenyls. 

“Visually it looked very different,” said Scipio. “A lot of contaminated soil was shipped out. Probably now everything is settled down and growing back – the land will start replacing what was damaged.”

A site at Ontario’s Polar Bear Provincial Park was planted with native species while monitoring ensures the recovery of the third largest wetland in the world. Scipio looks forward to similarly restoring his trapline’s ecological integrity. 

“I know it’s going to take time to restore the land, but we’ll do our part to make the land as clean as we can,” Scipio said. “Our main concern is for the future generations to hunt there, to have it as clean as possible for them. Where the wildlife will roam with no chance for contamination.”

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Patrick Quinn lives in Montreal with his wife and two small children. With a passion for words and social justice, he enjoys sharing Eeyou Istchee's stories and playing music.