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Indigenous resistance mounts to nuclear waste dump near Ottawa River

BY Patrick Quinn Mar 16, 2024

First Nations leaders took their opposition to a recently approved radioactive waste disposal site near the Ottawa River to Parliament Hill February 14, calling on the federal government to halt the project that they say threatens drinking water, wildlife and their fundamental rights.

On January 8, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) approved plans for a nuclear waste disposal facility at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) site at Chalk River. The near-surface facility located about 160 kilometres northwest of Ottawa would feature a mound holding up to a million cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste about one kilometre from the Ottawa River. 

“We stand united in safeguarding the well-being of our shared environment and the fundamental right of all Canadians to access clean and uncontaminated drinking water,” said Kebaowek Chief Lance Haymond, whose territory is adjacent to the proposed site.

Kebaowek is challenging the commission’s decision in Federal Court because it didn’t secure the First Nation’s free, prior and informed consent and conducted “consultations in a procedurally unfair way.” A second legal challenge launched by three citizens’ groups cites numerous environmental concerns, arguing that long-lived radioactive materials put the public at risk of developing cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations. 

The site was chosen for its proximity to existing waste sites at Chalk River Laboratories, where the federal government once operated nuclear reactors and over eight decades of nuclear waste accumulated. A former senior manager said the waste proposed for this facility is “intermediate level” and requires underground storage. 

During the final public hearing, Kebaowek councillor Justin Roy said the project is like building an outhouse beside a well. The site is bordered by wetlands that drain into the Ottawa River, the water source for millions downstream. Citizens are also concerned that the underlying bedrock is porous, with the groundwater table very close to the surface.

Indigenous-led research revealed a population of threatened eastern wolves that uses the site along with three active dens of black bears. The surrounding wetlands provide habitat for endangered Blanding’s turtles, various bat species and at-risk migratory birds. 

More than 140 municipalities passed resolutions of opposition or serious concern. The Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador stated the CNSC’s decision goes against the rights of First Nations and environmental protection. At the recent protest, Chief Haymond was flanked by leaders of the Green Party and Bloc Québécois. 

“Not only is this project a clear example of environmental racism that threatens the drinking water of many communities in the area, but CNSC also breached its duty to meaningfully consult Kebaowek from the beginning of this project,” said Green Party leader Elizabeth May. 

When Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the project as First Nations leaders looked on from the public gallery, Trudeau responded that approval was handled by the regulator and wasn’t a political decision. Haymond has questioned the CNSC’s independence, noting two commission members have ties to the nuclear industry.

While the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan consented and entered into a long-term relationship agreement with CNL and site owner Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, the 10 Algonquin communities in Quebec have long opposed the project. Some see a similar situation happening in northwestern Ontario where the Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation is one of two potential hosts for a giant nuclear waste facility planned to be as deep underground as the CN Tower is tall.

“It’s not fair for one community to decide the entire outcome for all the other nations who share the same waterway,” asserted Neecha Dupuis from Ojibway Nation of Saugeen. “How the government deals with First Nations communities is to pick one, then divide and conquer.”  

Discovering that these projects are proceeding with little awareness or resistance, Dupuis connected with groups like Environment North and Northwatch before helping found We the Nuclear-Free North to defend the rights of Indigenous people to their waterways while raising public awareness.

Chief Rudy Turtle of Grassy Narrows First Nation declared unequivocal opposition to nuclear waste “in our region, and anywhere upstream or upwind of our Territory” in a February 26 open letter. 

“The water from that site flows past our reserve and into the waters where we fish, drink and swim,” stated Chief Turtle. “The material that you want to store there will be dangerous for longer … than anything ever built has lasted. How can you reliably claim that this extremely dangerous waste will safely be contained for hundreds of thousands of years?”

Relieved to see the Algonquins defend their waterways, Dupuis circulated pamphlets “to let the Algonquin people know they’re not alone” at the Parliament Hill protest.

“I love the Kichi Sibi,” Dupuis told the Nation. “The river has a voice and it’s up to us to listen to her and uphold her rights as a being. For the fish, the animals and every single being that lives on that water. The love for the land will be the leadership for our next generation.”

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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.