(Edited by Lorraine Rekmans, Keith Lewis and Anabel Dwyer; published by the Serpent River First Nation, Cutler, Ontario, 2003. 123 pp. Reviewed by Jamie Kneen.)
It was not the Anishinabe people of the Serpent River, who decided to mine the massive uranium deposits that lie under the river basin where the town of Elliot Lake now sits. But it is they who have suffered the most from it. The costs to the non-aboriginal miners and their families has also been immense; cancer and other diseases have taken a dreadful toll. Even so, when the mines closed down in 1990, many of them were able to move on and look for work elsewhere. The First Nation, attached to the land by history, tradition, and treaties, had nowhere to go.
This slim book tells the stories of a number of people affected by the uranium industry: men, women, mineworkers, parents. In individual and group interviews and discussions, as well as a powerful poem and essay by Lorraine Rekmans, they give an intimate look at how uranium mining affected the Serpent River people. It is made all the more poignant by the fact that several of the voices, including that of one of the editors, Keith Lewis, have been silenced by cancer since the book was begun.
It is a sobering but strangely encouraging account. While the scale of the devastation is staggering (165 million tonnes of radioactive mill tailings left on the surface – requiring monitoring, and in some cases treatment of the run-off, in perpetuity), it is somehow balanced by the dignity and matter-of-fact tone of the narrators. There is a deep injustice here, and these voices speak quietly but powerfully about what happened so that some of these wrongs might be rectified, but more importantly so that they should never happen again.
When mining began in Elliot Lake in 1955, the workers were told nothing about the dangers radiation, even though the Canadian government and the mining companies were aware of some of its effects. Likewise, little thought was given to protecting the ecosystem or the downstream community. And even now, neither the mining companies nor the government are willing to compensate the survivors or commit to long term environmental and health monitoring. Both Natural Resources Canada and the Nuclear Safety Commission have shut down their Elliot Lake offices. The uranium industry has relocated to the more profitable higher-grade ores of northern Saskatchewan, to create a new “sacrifice zone” with the government’s blessing.
The people of the Elliot Lake area are simply making the best of it. They will continue to do what they can support each other and to help the ecosystem recover. One of the little-known aspects of the Elliot Lake story is the sulphuric acid plant that Noranda operated right in the community of Cutler from 1955 to 1962; it is interesting to see how the area has recovered, and also how the most dramatic effects of acid drainage from the tailings eventually disappeared once they had been properly contained. Yet the water and sediments of the Serpent River are still contaminated, and the danger of a major spill is never too far away. For the sake of the people of the Serpent River First Nation and the north shore of Lake Huron, their future generations, and all of us, let’s hope that never happens.
By presenting the effects of nuclear development in the people’s own words, with just enough chronological and background information to fill in the context, this book gives the reader a real human understanding of what has happened, and what needs to happen now.
The book can be ordered from Lorraine Rekmans at lrekmans(at)eisa.com for a contribution to cover postage and printing costs.