COVER

HAUNTED BY THE PAST

Cancer stalks a remote community

JENNIFER HUNTER August 3 1998
COVER

HAUNTED BY THE PAST

Cancer stalks a remote community

JENNIFER HUNTER August 3 1998

HAUNTED BY THE PAST

Cancer stalks a remote community

I ate in the afternoon, they gather at the graveyard. First, the old women arrive, faces wizened by time and grief, their grey hair hidden under the rosy kerchiefs that are meant to keep dreams from escaping. Then, the men, with drums of caribou skin, shuffle into the cemetery. The others, mothers toting children, young teenagers, follow shortly after. The Sahtugot’ine of Déline, a remote hamlet of 616 people on the western shore of Great Bear Lake, have come to the graveyard to ask for help from their ancestors—and descendants yet unborn—through the rites of a fire ceremony. One by one, the old women step forward, proffering dried pieces of fish, tobacco, meat or bread, placing the foodstuffs in a metal bowl in front of the fire. The men intone a Slavey-language hymn and rhythmically hit the drums. Charlie Neyelle, who guides the chorus, wears a white rosary. As if on cue, it starts to rain.

The Sahtugot’ine say they need help because they are beset by a plague of cancer—a result, they claim, of radiation from a nearby radium and uranium mine that poisoned their bodies and their land over the course of three decades. (The mine, run by Crown corporation Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd., supplied some of the uranium for the 1940s Manhattan Project to build the atomic bomb.) No one can say how many residents of Déline, over the years, have been afflicted with cancer; the Sahtugot’ine, a people of oral tradition, have not kept records and the Northwest Territories government did not start collecting cancer statistics until 1989.

But studies of non-aboriginal miners at uranium mines have established a high incidence of illness. “The association between lung cancer and uranium mining is well documented,” says Dr. Pierre Band, senior medical epidemiologist with Health Canada. And in the past year alone, the people of Déline say, there have been seven new cases of cancer in their community, resulting in three deaths. The latest victim was 55-year-old John Baton, his grave strewn with flowers. “Men from my grandmother’s generation regularly lived into their 90s or 100s,” says Gina Bayha, who operates the town’s only inn.

“But we hardly have any men past the age of 65. They all died of cancer.”

For many years, Déline residents had little understanding of what was happening to their community. Then, about two years ago, some of the younger members began to investigate the deaths and research the history of Eldorado. They set up a uranium committee, which this spring completed a 106-page re-

port documenting their concerns and listing 14 demands to the federal government, including an environmental assessment and unspecified financial compensation. Committee members went to Ottawa early this summer to present their report to Health Minister Allan Rock, Indian and Northern Affairs Minister Jane Stewart, and Minister of Natural Resources Ralph Goodale. Officials from the three ministries are now trying to work with the Sahtugot’ine to determine the extent of the contamination—and to come up with answers. “I think we’ve understood that to find solutions to this problem we have to work together,” Stewart told reporters after the meeting.

The problem, the Sahtugot’ine say, dates back to 1931 when pitchblende, a mineral source of radium and uranium, was discovered on the east side of Great Bear Lake. From 1933 until the site closed down in the early 1960s, Eldorado, which became a Crown corporation in 1944, mined the deposit at Port Radium (now called Echo Bay), 150 km across the lake from Déline. For the first decade of the mine’s existence, radium—used in, among other things, luminous paint—was the prize, not uranium. During the 1930s, Sahtugot’ine men were hired as ore carriers at Port Radium.

Called “coolies” by the white miners and paid $5 a day, they would fling 45-kg sacks of radium-rich ore across their backs, place them on barges, move them across Great Bear Lake and portage them 300 km to the Mackenzie River. (Radium then sold for about $25,000 per gram; in comparison, the average annual wage in 1935 among Canadian workers in the manufacturing sector was $870). No one who worked at the mine was given protective clothing, or provided with showers to remove the toxic dust, says historian Robert Bothwell in his book Eldorado, Canada’s National Uranium Company. But the dangers of radium were known: federal scientists had warned of the haz-

ards of exposure. “Radium or radioactive substances once deposited in the bone structure of the body are impossible to eliminate,” stated a 1931 report. That “makes the taking of every precaution a most necessary factor in the treatment of pitchblende for the recovery of radium.”

By 1942, the miners had abandoned radium for uranium, pushed by the Second World War effort to build an atomic bomb. Uranium mining continued with the arms race of the Cold War and the Sahtugot’ine, once again, worked as transporters. As a nomadic people who lived on the fringes of Great Bear Lake—they did not settle in Fort Franklin, later known as Déline, until the 1950s—they brought their wives and children to stay with them at camps along the uranium transportation route. The children played in the yellow mine dust. The men came into their tents covered in it. They breathed the dust, ingested it with their food. “It got on their clothes and in their hair, and when it was time to eat they didn’t wash their hands or faces,” says Joe Blondin Jr., 55, a member of the uranium committee, who spent part of his childhood in Port Radium—and whose father, mother, two sisters-in-law and two nephews have died of cancer.

Few of the white people at the mine spoke Slavey, few of the Sahtugot’ine spoke English—and no one warned of any dangers. “My tent was set up on the site where that uranium stuff was stored,” says Alfred Taniton, 66, whose 60-year-old wife, Jane, had a cancerous kidney removed several years ago. “No one told us it was dangerous. Now, I feel angry and upset. I am afraid for myself and my people. What is going to happen? Even the white people who worked at the mine have died of cancer.” That has left many Sahtugot’ine wary of the federal government. “It is one of the challenges that we have, establishing trust,” acknowledges Hiram Beaubier, director general of natural resources and environment

at the department of Indian and northern affairs.

During the mine’s existence, 1.7 million tonnes of radioactive tailings were dumped into the lake and around Port Radium, according to research done by Déline band members and their Hamilton-based lawyer, Andrew Orkin. “This story has blown me away,” says Orkin. “As an example of government abuse and neglect it transcends everything I’ve seen.” And although the mine was supposedly cleaned up—the tailings covered by pulverized rock after the mine closed, and further clean-ups done at certain sites last year— federal officials acknowledge that doubts remain. “The cleanup effort is still open to debate whether it was satisfactorily done,” says Beaubier.

The Sahtugot’ine still live a very traditional life, hunting for caribou and fishing for trout, whitefish and herring in Great Bear « Lake, the fourth-largest lake in I North America. But that life is « now colored by concerns—if not £5 outright panic—that their envi| ronment is irrevocably tainted, s Blondín uses a Brita filter to I cleanse his water, trying to eliminate the possible taint of radioactivity. “Making tea this afternoon, I was thinking about it,” he says. “I always think about it. Whenever I get a little pain, I think about it.” This summer, Blondin—a cousin of local Liberal MP Ethel Blondin-Andrew—went out with an environmental specialist, hired by the federal government, to take samples of lichen, wild cranberries and blackberries, fish and caribou and have them tested. In early July, ecologist Leslie Whitby, who works for the department of Indian and northern affairs and heads the Northern Contaminants Program, visited the Port Radium site to take geiger counter readings. She acknowledges that “there are some places over the tailings that the levels are higher than we’d like to see,” but adds that since the mine is far across the lake from Déline “people are not living on a contaminated site.” Still, Whitby understands Sahtugot’ine fears about their food and water—and their past as ore carriers. “They have every right to be worried,” she says. “This is an extremely complex issue—they are trying to understand the relationship between radiation and cancer.”

In the coming weeks, lake sediment samples will be taken, and Whitby has proposed further environmental and health studies. But the band also wants independent health experts and scientists to investigate. “It’s going to take a lot of money to haul all that garbage out,” says Blondin. “It’s going to take many years.” And in August, members of the Déline band intend to visit Japan. Because uranium transported by the Sahtugot’ine was used in the nuclear bomb, they plan to meet with victims of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and express regret over their inadvertent contribution to the cities’ destruction. Meanwhile, once a month, the Sahtugot’ine continue to meet in the graveyard for the fire ceremony, hoping for help from their ancestors to heal the land— and themselves.

JENNIFER HUNTER