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Environmental Injustice in the Canadian North

Essay by   •  July 12, 2011  •  Case Study  •  2,698 Words (11 Pages)  •  1,157 Views

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Environmental Injustice In The Canadian North

The health and safety of our environment is the key to the survival of our species, our culture and even our future. For aboriginals the environment plays a major role in traditional foods, spirituality and culture. An injustice upon indigenous environments should never be taken lightly or forgotten. The indigenous of the Canadian north whose generations and traditions have sustained in the north for over a thousand years, can be easily mistreated, misunderstood and even ignored by the government and resource development organizations. Northern indigenous communities are affected greatly by resource development projects and major environmental devastation has occurred as a result of such projects in years past. When considering the rights to a safe, healthy, and sustainable life for aboriginal individuals and communities it can be difficult for western thinkers to decide on sustainable development plans that are well suited to the people of the north. Recently an environmental justice movement has brought safer, more environmentally friendly development projects to the north but this only comes as a result of past transgressions against northern communities and their environment. The United Nations Environmental Program has developed principals in which indigenous rights are protected and recognized. Canadian legislations have been changed as well to protect the indigenous rights. These changes have come only as a result of disparity; nonetheless it has been for too long that environmental injustices have occurred on aboriginal land against the first nations people of our country. Individuals and communities have been subject to inequality and ethnic racism and the health and safety of indigenous peoples been violated considerably. The Sahtu-Dene of Canada's Northwest Territories is one such indigenous population whose way of life has been greatly affected by resource development mining operations in the Canadian North. The Port Radium Eldorado Radium, Uranium and Silver mine located on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake was in operation from 1931 to 1960 and quickly became one of the worst cases of environmental injustice towards a Canadian First Nations community, the Déline in the Canadian northwest.

In 1930 on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake in Canada's Northwest Territories radium ore was discovered by Gilbert LaBine, owner of the Eldorado Mining Gold Corporation. At the time little was known about possible ill effects of Radium Ore mining on humans or the environment. The Eldorado Mining Corporation initially began mining in 1931 with the intent to transport raw Radium ore down the Mackenzie River to various processing plants in the south, specifically Ontario. The raw material was often shipped by aboriginal workers who were grossly underpaid. Dene men from the local community of Déline, the only inhabited community on Great Bear Lake, were hired to carry cloth sacks of radioactive ore to the shipping sites, but kept in the dark about serious health hazards from exposure to these ores; the community later became known as a village of widows (Tilman, 2010). This transportation route has since been labeled the Yellowcake trail because of the yellow colored uranium that was shipped. The Dene were given a few sacs of flower, lard, and baking powder in exchange for the right to mine the ore which then sold for $70,000 a gram on the international market while the Dene workers were paid three dollars a day to haul uranium in burlap sacks which was ferried by barge across the territories to Fort McMurray (Donaldson, 1930).

In 1940 Port Radium was ironically bought by a Canadian crown corporation. They extracted Uranium at Port Radium and sold it to the U.S to be used in their nuclear weapons program eventually supplying the 60 tons of uranium required to produce the bombs which were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima (Henningson, 2006). There is evidence that the Crown Corporation knew very well the environmental effects involved in the mining and transportation of Uranium but even still the workers and surrounding communities were not informed of such risks. The Dene as an ethnic minority group was never informed of this and they were easily taken advantage of by the Canadian Crown Corporation. Still there is much mystery surrounding the truths behind the history of the Port Radium mines. Some argue that the yellow powder that was being transported in the 1930's was actually sulfur oxide but by the 1940's Uranium was definitely in high demand by the United States. It is difficult to believe what was being shipped was anything other than radioactive material in my opinion.

While reading papers written by one the Dene members themselves from the conference of the Universal Rights and Human Values: a blueprint for peace, justice and freedom, held at the University of Alberta in November of 1998, it became evident of the truths that surround Port Radium mining operations. Cidney Kenny Gilday is members of Dene, she received the 1994 Aboriginal Achievement Award in recognition of her international work on environmental issues and aboriginal rights (Bhatia, 1998). She wrote of the actual accounts of the Dene from a firsthand perspective. She goes on in writing in a popular paper named Village of Widow and I quote "There were no studies carried out on Dene exposure to radioactive lands and waters and traditional foods, and the linkage to human health and increasing cancer deaths" (Gilday, 1998). She goes on to account for how other Dene members viewed the mining effects; The daughter of a widow from Deline, while visiting the community, said, "Every day as I got up in the morning, I saw the Radium Gilbert sitting out in the bay in front of the village, a cruel reminder to all the widows whose husbands worked on that boat carrying ore on their backs for three dollars a day" (Gilday, 1998). In a recent study into the biological effects of radiation exposure by Vakil & Harvey in 2009 some interesting results are found. One such finding is as follows:

"There is mounting evidence that even very low levels of radiation exposure may have deleterious health effects over the long term, some of them serious. These are detectable in nuclear workers and in the general population in the vicinity of nuclear installations. Some of these involve genetic material and may affect generations to come. Our understanding of the cellular processes affected by this damage, and the implications for the health of the affected individual and his/her descendents is far from complete" (Vakil & Harvey, 2009).

Specific environmental injustices towards the indigenous communities of the north and the lack of sustainable development planning on or near indigenous communities are

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