Register Wednesday | June 12 | 2024
They Never Told Us These Things

They Never Told Us These Things

A mine in the Northwest Territories provided much of the uranium used during the Manhattan Project—unbeknownst to the indigenous people who worked there.

Sacks of pitchblende Concentrate awaiting shipment at Port Radium, Great Bear Lake, 1939.

Long ago, there was a famous rock called Somba Ke—“The Money Place”—on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Loud noises came from this place and it was bad medicine to pass near it. In the old days, a group of caribou hunters camped at Somba Ke for a night. One of them—a man named Ehtséo Ayah, known in his community as “Grandfather”—had a dream and saw many strange things: men with white faces climbing into a big hole in the ground, a great flying bird, a big stick dropped on people far away. This would happen sometime in the future, after we are all gone, the prophet said. In his vision, everyone died. Everyone burned.

Theresa Baton recounts this tale, recorded by the elder George Blondin, as we sit in her narrow, smoky trailer. There is a framed photo of Ayah on the sideboard. Baton is a strikingly beautiful woman, as slender and fit as her husband, Peter. They are two of the few Dene grandparents left alive in Déline, an indigenous community of several hundred people in the Northwest Territories. In the waning days of World War II, the people of Déline and the white miners working at nearby Port Radium ferried bags of uranium ore from the Eldorado mine—where Somba Ke once sat—across Great Bear Lake. The ninety-pound sacks were carried on men’s backs, loaded onto boats and transported about two thousand kilometres south to Alberta. The crushed ore was refined in Port Hope, Ontario. Then it was sent to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, where it was used to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Few Canadians know about their country’s role in one of history’s most destructive acts of war.

The day before I visit the Batons, their neighbour Isadore Yukon—who transported the sacks by boat—tells me his arms would get red from the ore, and he’d grow so exhausted crossing back and forth over the lake that he’d lie down on the bags to sleep. Peter and Theresa moved to Déline a long time ago, and the uranium mine closed in the early 1960s. Theresa says that when they lived at Port Radium, the women would make tents from the sacks for their families to sleep in. There has been a lot of illness since then, and many deaths from cancer. Déline has come to be called the “Village of Widows.” The town’s surviving elders say the prophet Ayah warned them. These are people who still have no word for radiation.

For decades, the Sahtúgot’ine—Bear Lake people—had only heard rumours about where the pitchblende, or uranium, gleaned from their land ended up. In the 1990s, a meeting between the Dene and Gordon Edwards, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, confirmed the deadly tie binding Port Radium to Hiroshima. Then an extraordinary thing happened. A Dene delegation got on a plane and went to Japan to offer the hibakusha—the bomb survivors—an apology.

In 2001, I learn that much of the uranium used in developing the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was from Great Bear Lake. This information comes from a colleague, Peter van Wyck, who wants to know if I’ll accompany him on a research trip. How would I like to follow the path of uranium from the Northwest Territories to New Mexico? I’ve always been attracted to catastrophic events: the fault lines in the psyche of a culture; the secrets that fester in families, leak quietly into communities and eventually—sometimes—explode. I work in theatre, so I decide to tell the story of Great Bear Lake’s uranium by writing an opera.

A year later, I find myself in the Batons’ trailer. Dizzy from the cigarette smoke, I stand up to leave. Theresa grabs my hand and thanks me for coming. “You didn’t bring one of those tape recorders,” she says. “That’s good.” Later, one of the community workers tells me, “Lots of people come to interview the elders here. Not many come to talk.” As I bundle into my new snowsuit, Peter shakes his head and insists on lending me a pair of long beaver mitts. He says the weather is unusually cold at minus forty-eight, and that, if I pay attention, I can hear ice crack.

I wave goodbye and stumble into the frigid air. As I head to my hotel, I pass the cemetery with its rows of tiny white crosses. Sitting offshore in a blanket of brilliance is Isadore Yukon’s old tugboat, the Radium Gilbert—retired sometime in the 1960s and bought by the Dene Band Council for one dollar. Her graffiti-scratched hull tilts drunkenly in the snow. When they took a Geiger counter through the boat years ago, it was her shower that had the highest levels of radioactivity.

I started going to seminars about how to survive a nuclear war when I was sixteen. It was 1971, and the peace movement—the one my generation thought would save the world—was just getting going. Helen Caldicott hadn’t yet terrified us with her documentary If You Love This Planet, but I still didn’t sleep at night. While my parents sat with their Scotches watching Ed Sullivan on our black-and-white television, I went to the field behind our house on the outskirts of Toronto to see if planes flying overhead would drop something big. I lived in perpetual anticipation of sudden explosions. I wanted to be sure that when the world blew up there would be an escape route, a door with an exit sign. One Sunday afternoon in August, I clipped an announcement from the Toronto Telegram, figured out the mysteries of the subway system and found my way to a convention hall downtown. There, I looked at exhibits about how to keep food for long periods of time, and took notes on staying warm underground during a Canadian nuclear winter.

After graduating from university, I took the train west to the coast. I had job leads in Edmonton and Vancouver, so I researched each city’s escape plan. Every municipality, now as well as then, has a strategy in the event of disaster. Edmonton felt safer because there were highways out of town. Vancouver made me nervous—all those mountains hemming you in on one side, the unforgiving ocean on the other. During a beautiful summer spent on Wreck Beach, while my new friends were falling in and out of love, I read survival manuals and discovered that the most organized city in North America was Seattle. There was a clear chain of command, one person who made the decisions and put the action plan into effect: the Fire Chief. I seriously considered moving there.

When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949, he spoke about the curse of not having a future. “There are no longer problems of the spirit,” he said. “There is only the question: when will I be blown up?” In Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Robert Lifton and Greg Mitchell write that, since 1945, personal losses—the death of a loved one, dislocation from home—have merged with extreme threat: “Just as, after Hiroshima, every antagonism between nations takes on the potential for destroying the entire world, so does every personal trauma potentially take on that end-of-the-world association.” Every danger we experience, personal or private, puts us psychically on the edge of disaster, worrying about the next emergency: an earthquake in Japan, a friend with cancer, a depressed parent.

For North Americans, the September 11 attacks didn’t inaugurate the visceral, urgent sense of threat to “home” and “security”; they merely ripped off the protective scab that had grown over the wounds of 1945. We still live in fear—of terrorism, of radiation contamination, of the apocalypse. The twentysomething man who owns the corner store near my house says he doesn’t think about nuclear weapons. But he knows the planet will have no edible food in ten years, so he keeps tins and seed packets in the basement. That is what humans do when we’re in danger: we hide, we conceal ourselves, we seek shelter. Like Adam, we are always running for cover. God asks Adam, “Where are you?” Goethe replies, “If I knew myself, I’d run away.”

Great Bear Lake is more than thirty thousand square kilometres of inland sea, close to the upper limit of the tree line. It’s bordered on its south and west sides by black and white spruce, with a sprinkling of muskeg; on its north, the forest gives way to tundra. During the 1930s, a whole village sprung up around the site of the Eldorado mine on the lake’s eastern shore. There was a school, a store and lodging for the white miners. Once, the circus even came to town.

I stay at Grey Goose Lodge, the only hotel in Déline. A dozen rooms, a restaurant, a gift shop and a porch. It’s February. With so little daylight, time is organized differently here, and there is unrelenting activity. Large vehicles idle outside, exhaust clouding the brittle air. If you turn the motors off, they’ll freeze up and you won’t get them going again.

In my hotel room, I run a bath and sit with my feet in hot water, thinking about what I’ve learned in Déline so far. “We did not know the ore was bad,” one person said. “Non-natives didn’t know, either.” The Dene started to ask questions in the 1980s when their men began to die. The Medical Officer of Health for the Northwest Territories only began a register of diagnoses and deaths in 1989–90; the year before, it listed fourteen Dene men who worked in the mining, milling or transport of radium and uranium. All of them died from cancers associated with exposure to radioactive contaminants: lung, bone, throat.

Deborah Simmons, a staff person for the Déline Uranium Team, comes to the hotel and drops off They Never Told Us These Things, a report the Dene researched, wrote and carried to Ottawa in 1998. The 160 pages are carefully detailed and plainspoken. I read that, from the beginning of the mine’s operations, the government had kept crucial information from the Dene. In 1932, the Annual Report of the Department of Mines mandated weekly lung tests for miners, as well as monthly blood tests for lab workers—but only in Canada’s south. The 1933 report included a lengthy and detailed examination of the ore’s dangers: “when the insidious and deadly nature of radium is considered, too much care cannot be taken.” But nobody told the Dene who carried and transported it. Nor, it seems, did anyone tell the white miners who worked underground, and who also lived at Port Radium.

Cindy Kenny Gilday, a Dene activist and a major force behind the trip to Hiroshima, writes about a packed community meeting in Déline, where lawyers delivered a year’s worth of uranium-impact research from the archives in Ottawa. “‘In the mountain of papers we dug up in Ottawa this year on this issue, there is not one mention of the Dene, your people,’” the lawyers say in Gilday’s retelling. “The hall went completely silent. The elders had incredulous looks on their faces, a combination of sadness and anger.”

The DUT has spent years researching the effects of the mine on the community. In 1998, it sent a delegation to Ottawa. A year later, it agreed to a co-operative process with the federal government to research the health and environmental impacts of the mine. The result—called the Canada-Déline Uranium Table Final Report, released in 2005—made twenty-six recommendations. Some have been addressed, and cleanup work in partnership with the Dene is ongoing. But the report also concluded that there was not enough evidence to link working for Eldorado to cancers in the area. Although significant contamination was found in the lake and on the mine site, none, according to the report, would harm the fish or wildlife the people depend on.

The CDUT report has faced criticism both inside and outside Déline. Well-known environmental journalist Andrew Nikiforuk expressed concern that the study’s narrow framing weakened its findings. Intertek, the official fact-finder hired for the CDUT report, was not able to access key archival information. The only statistics considered relevant in the determination of cancer-related deaths were body counts. But in David Henningson’s 2006 documentary, Somba Ke: The Money Place, cancer research scientist Rosalie Bertell argues that using death records to assess the effects of uranium on a population is insufficient. “Bertell maintains that the only way to do this kind of investigation (she apparently offered this to the community) is to do blood and urine analyses,” Peter van Wyck writes in his book Highway of the Atom, “which would at least allow for correlation with exposure.”

Eldorado was reopened as a silver mine in 1963, then closed again in 1982. Today, almost ten years after my visit to Déline, Alberta Star Development Corporation has extensively staked and test-drilled the area. The company’s website describes large uranium anomalies that have never been explored, and Alberta Star is trying to determine “if there is a potential resource to support the recommencement of commercial production at the mine sites.” Alberta Star’s permit, granted with permission from the Déline Land Corporation, officially expires in 2013, but if it continues to meet regulatory requirements, its mineral claim will remain in effect indefinitely. Uranium mining doesn’t just provoke controversy—it also provides jobs.

Known for their pioneering self-governance, the Sahtúgot’ine have undertaken a series of initiatives in land stewardship, including cleanup work at the various abandoned mine sites on the lake, as recommended by the CDUT report. Still, many questions remain. They Never Told Us These Things asks how Ottawa could have knowingly let the Bear Lake people select contaminated areas for settlement during their land-claims process in the early nineties. The Sahtúgot’ine say their families have lost faith in governments and their young people see no future; they believe that their place in the world is poisoned and their children will die.

The Dene report also mentions the Japanese: “We are suffering intense guilt and grief in our community that the materials we carried to the barges and to the aircraft went to make an atomic bomb that killed many tens of thousands of human beings in Japan. Our people feel that if they had been told what they were helping to do, they would not have done it.”

Shortly before I leave Déline there is a feast. I sit beside long sheets of brown paper rolled out on the community hall floor, and eat caribou and potatoes. The meat is too gamey for me; it makes me gag and I’m ashamed. I look around at the people I have met and wonder how I’ll do justice to any of this with the opera I plan to write. (It would eventually become Shelter, composed by Juliet Palmer and produced by Tapestry New Opera in Toronto.) I have tried to get a sense of this place but have deliberately not asked questions that might stir up painful memories. After dinner, two more people invite me to visit their homes the next day—my last in Déline—and have tea. Suddenly, a week seems painfully inadequate.

Following the meal, we move to rows of chairs and have a discussion about Eldorado, and what it means to unearth this history. A woman stands up, leans for a moment on her husband’s shoulder, straightens and says, “Let’s get on. It’s about the future. Enough with the past.” Another man beside her seems angry. He gets up, speaks to the group: “If you’ve got something to say, pull it out of your pocket. Otherwise, it will rot.”

When I fly out of Déline, I have a stopover in Norman Wells, the Northwest Territories. In the town’s small museum, there’s a display of photos and artifacts from the Eldorado mine, and I find a photograph of a bottle fastened to a plywood frame. I lean over the railing to look more closely. The bottle is attached to a commemorative plaque placed outside the miners’ changing room at Port Radium. Inside the bottle is trinitite, the olive-coloured, glass-like substance made when the sand hit by the first atomic explosion melted and solidified. The trinitite traveled all the way from the New Mexico desert to the mine at Port Radium. I decide to make the same trip in reverse.

At the National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, there are sterling silver earrings for sale in the shapes of Little Boy and Fat Man, the two bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When they were first sold in the museum’s boutique, Japanese tourists complained and the earrings were removed. But when I visit in 2004 they are back, displayed on the shelf with other assorted souvenirs. I buy a pair, thinking nobody will believe me otherwise, then drive down an open highway to southern New Mexico, arriving after sunset at a cheap motel. I lie awake thinking about the next day, about putting on a miner’s cap and taking an elevator a mile underground. I think about cancer and gamma rays and wish I were writing an opera about eating and drinking across Italy.

I hit the road again as the sun comes up and suddenly, in the middle of scrub desert, there is the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant, advertised as “the world’s first underground repository licensed to safely and permanently dispose of transuranic radioactive waste.” This includes all kinds of things, like lab coats and instruments, that have been exposed to enough uranium to have a half-life longer than twenty years—they will be radioactive for a very long time. The WIPP is surrounded by kilometres of fence and wire. I check in at the gate, park the car and meet an engineer, a public relations guy and a young indigenous man with a briefcase and a crooked smile. They sit me down in a boardroom and give me a two-hour briefing: what to know before going down the elevator shaft.

Things don’t go wrong at the WIPP. If they do, there are controls. For example, when you get “occupational exposure,” you’ll hear one of three levels of alarms (“Bell, Yelp or Gong”), at which point you move to the colour-coded staging area. You have to be over eighteen to visit. You sink more than six hundred metres, travelling fast in a tiny elevator, passing through forty-two square kilometres of fossilized coral reef; millions of years ago, this area was covered by ocean. Each drum of waste is wrapped in layers of lead and dropped slowly into one hundred million cubic metres of salt, one of nature’s most stable compounds.

Radioactive waste comes here by truck from seven sites across the United States—a huge, choreographed dance number. To get a truck into the WIPP, you need to jump through a series of bureaucratic hoops; the engineer says, “We’re held hostage by politics.” I think of the elderly World War II veterans I watched the day before, guiding bored high-school students through the Atomic Museum. They delivered a sanitized account of why the bomb was dropped, with no mention of the politics around Truman’s decision: the opening gambits of the Cold War; the pressure to show America’s new weapon to the Russians and to create a test case the government could study.

The elevator plummets through the earth. We step out into a long tunnel bustling with workers, their hard hats eager spotlights in the dull blackness. I tentatively put my hand against cold wet walls of salt, and the engineer continues his story with enthusiasm. There are three or four trucks on the road at a time, travelling with their precious cargo. Two guys are on board each truck, and they stop every 150 miles for a complete two-hour inspection. The drivers need thirty-five thousand miles of driving experience, can have no violations, are all in their forties or fifties—they know what they’re doing. There have only been two “road events,” one involving a nineteen-year-old and a six-pack of Corona. The kid’s Toyota hit the back of the truck and flipped it at some rural intersection in a not-to-be-mentioned state. Apparently there was no damage, and they tell me the beer was okay.

I also have an invitation to visit the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range, where the first atomic bomb was exploded on July 16, 1945. I stop for a coffee, delaying, afraid of this part of my journey. It seems crazy to have spent my youth trying to escape a nuclear blast and to now, voluntarily, drive to Ground Zero. But it also feels like something is coming full circle in my life, even if I don’t know what it is.

I head west across sixty-four kilometres of the Tularosa Basin. White Sands, located in south-central New Mexico, helps the US military with “experimentation, test, research, assessment, development and training in support of the Nation at war.” On my way to the Trinity site, I step out onto the tarmac of a tiny missile museum. Holding my hair back with both hands as the February wind slams into me, I stare at what must be thirty military rockets, tall white cones crowded onto an acre of land, a flock of odd birds stranded in this empty way station.

White Sands is an endless expanse of desert and cactus, and most of what goes on here is secret. There is a great deal of terrorism research, and somewhere out of sight is a scale model of the building targeted in the Oklahoma City bombing. I’m taken through a guarded gate and driven into the desert until we reach a small circular area surrounded by a high wire fence. I walk inside. In the centre is a three-and-a-half-metre stone monument marking the spot where the bomb exploded. Every metre or so along the fence, tied crudely to the wire, are black-and-white photographs: the blast, the farmhouse where the scientists stayed, an atomic equation. As we enter, someone tells me not to worry; one hour of radiation here is about the same as skiing on a mountain in sunlight. I look at my watch.

My father is almost ninety. His most vivid memory of the atomic bomb, he tells me, is of my mother coming into their kitchen with a magazine in her hands. “I was cooking, a pot was simmering, I was stirring. She stood in the doorway, shaking, in a yellow sundress. Life magazine photos, I think. Thin-skinned, your mother.” He smiles and reaches a bony, spotted arm to pat me on the knee. “She was missing the tough layer, the one that keeps you safe. A strong woman on the outside. Inside, fragile. Things could break.”

August 6, 1945 was a Monday. The Enola Gay left Tinian Island’s North Field at 2:45 am. There were little explosions along the runway from the flashes of photographers, who were alerted that something big was breaking. Special Bombing Mission Number 13 took off without a hitch, with Little Boy in its bomb bay. The target was the T-shaped Aoio Bridge, in the centre of Hiroshima.

The Enola Gay dropped its bundle at 8:15 am. At 2:58 pm, the plane landed back on Tinian. The pilot was decorated with the Distinguished Service Cross, while the other members of his crew received Air Medals. On August 9, 1945, the Enola Gay flew reconnaissance to Kokura as a support plane for Special Bombing Mission Number 16, which dropped Fat Man on the city of Nagasaki.

Physicist John Manley suggested the blast of the Trinity atomic bomb—the first ever—looked like a black rose, its petals unfurling as it grew skyward. In October of 1945, a crowd gathered in the Los Angeles Coliseum to witness a recreation of the bombing of Japan. A mushroom cloud burst from the field to the enraptured cheers of the crowd.

Many of the atomic-bomb scientists were deeply conflicted about their discovery. After a party celebrating the first test, J. Robert Oppenheimer saw a colleague throwing up and thought, “It’s started.” Three months later, the “father of the bomb” retired as director of Los Alamos, and each worker was given a silver pin stamped with a large “A” and a small “bomb.” “I never saw a man in such an extremely nervous state as Oppenheimer,” US Vice-President Henry Wallace wrote in his diary. “The guilt consciousness of the atomic bomb scientists is one of the most astounding things I have ever seen.”

Fifty-three years after Fat Man and Little Boy, the delegation of Sahtúgot’ine travelled from Déline to Japan, to apologize to atomic bomb survivors and their relatives. The filmmaker Peter Blow was with them, shooting his documentary Village of Widows. When I watch the film for the first time in my living room in Toronto, it is an old Dene man’s testimony about the ore that stops me. “I thought it was gold,” he says. “I thought they made rings, or something, in the south.”

On my last night in Déline, I go ice fishing. A man named Gordon Taniton, his round face framing a flashing smile, has been teasing me that I don’t have “northern patience.” He picks me up from the steps of the small community centre. I climb onto his red snowmobile and we follow the shoreline of Great Bear, past tiny houses puffing smoke as the sun bleeds fire along an indigo horizon. We lurch onto the lake and head full steam toward a small white canvas tent about a kilometre out. As we pull up, Gordon switches off the engine and the silence roars back like a giant wave hitting an empty beach.

He takes me inside and proudly shows me a battered couch, an acrylic rose rug and an airtight stove. He loads it up with wood, tosses in a match and points at a dark circle cut out of the floor. “The fish down there aren’t just food. They give us Sahtú people our freedom. Maybe one will find you.” He hands me a cold black rod. “Don’t let the fire go out—you’ll freeze! Sit yourself on that couch, prop your feet to hold you steady and drop your line down. Then wait.”

I listen as the snowmobile disappears into the night. After a half-hour or so, my northern patience wears out and I pull out my copy of They Never Told Us These Things. The bundle of papers falls open to a photocopied page I hadn’t noticed before.

It’s a map, drawn in pencil, of the mine on Great Bear Lake. The names of its authors are written in the upper right-hand corner: Huey Ferdinand, Irene Betsidea, Mary Kodakin, Paul Baton. Along the top, a jagged line indicates a row of cliffs, the pencil tracing how the land curves into inlets. There are small squares indicating locations of interest: the tugboat that carried the ore, places contaminated by oil, a winter airstrip, a tennis court (beside chemical bags), houses for miners (beside sewage dumped in the water), a bank, store, skating rink, school. In a small circle is written, “deep pond on top of hill.” Outside the circle: “child drowns, pond drained.”

The map—situated as it is inside a report sent to Ottawa, a book on a shelf, an archive—shows what French theorist Pierre Nora calls “les lieux de mémoire.” These are sites where an intersection of history, memory and engagement “blocks the work of forgetting” and “carries a will to remember”; they are transitive moments in the culture of a living people.

Running diagonally across the map are two long, narrow strips, with a row of tiny arrows inside each. These are the underground tunnels that lead from the mine, more than 240 metres below the surface, to “way far” under the lake. Water has continuously penetrated the three-metre-wide tunnels. The Dene are concerned that, decades after the mine was abandoned, water that has absorbed radioactive minerals has filled the tunnels and is now seeping back into the lake.

Great Bear is a beautiful spot to sit and fish. I think of the 740,000 tons of radioactive tailings left in the lake beneath me. Thorium-230, a hazardous nuclide found in uranium tailings, has a half-life of about eighty thousand years.

What is the half-life of memory?

See the rest of Issue 40 (Summer 2011).

Subscribe to Maisonneuve today.

Related on

—Disaster Myths
—The Intelligent Universe
—Spirit Food

Follow Maisonneuve on TwitterLike Maisonneuve on Facebook