From Sahtú (Great Bear Lake) to Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Canada and the atom bomb

It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe.
– William Lyon Mackenzie King, Prime Minister of Canada (August 6, 1945, uncensored diaries)

On July 28, 1931 the first shipment of uranium was loaded onto a small craft at LaBine Point, on the eastern shore of Sahtú (Great Bear Lake, McTavish Arm), NWT | Public Archives of Canada C-23960

By KIM PETERSEN*

Few Canadians know of Canada’s link to Little Boy, the so-christened uranium bomb that exploded over Hiroshima, and Fat Man, the plutonium bomb that devastated Nagasaki. Not only were Japanese citizens expendable in the nuclear holocaust, but the “Canadian Genocide Machine” [1] wreaked long-lasting damage on the Original Peoples in the Arctic.

Sahtú (Great Bear Lake) is the ninth largest lake in the world, famed for its record-size lake trout and Arctic graylings. The Sahtugot’ine (Dene First Nation of Sahtú) have traditionally carried out a subsistence livelihood following their food, mainly caribou and the fish, seasonally around Sahtú. A thriving community of 650 has settled in Deline (Délınę). Previously called Fort Franklin after an English explorer, Deline means, “Where the water flows,” in the Slavey language.

The uranium mine was developed by the Canadian government to satisfy US needs for the World War II effort to construct an atomic bomb. From 1942 to 1960, the Sahtugot’ine worked at the mine in Port Radium, unknowingly polluting their massive freshwater resource and irradiating themselves. Unaware of the radiation’s effects, the Sahtú Dene used “cloth sacks” to transport the ore; their only protection was gloves. Further, over 1.7 million tons of uranium waste was dumped north of Great Bear Lake. In the early 1960s, the danger became apparent. The Sahtugot’ine workers started to die from lung, colon, and kidney cancers – diseases previously unknown to them.

Tom Gonzales, Wikimedia (Click to enlarge)

Cindy Kenny-Gilday is a Sahtugot’ine who has worked on the issue of uranium contamination of lands and people around Sahtu. About the lethal legacy of uranium mining, she stated in 1998:

Deline is practically a village of widows, most of the men who worked as labourers have died of some form of cancer. The widows, who are traditional women were left to raise their families with no breadwinners, supporters. They were left to depend on welfare and other young men for their traditional food source. This village of young men are the first generation of men in the history of Dene on this lake to grow up without guidance from their grandfathers, fathers and uncles. This cultural, economic, spiritual, emotional deprivation impact on the community is a threat to the survival of the one and only tribe on Great Bear Lake.

Declassified documents reveal that the danger from uranium was known during the mining operation. However, neither the Canadian nor US governments saw fit to make known the health dangers. The Sahtugot’ine were sacrificed for a massacre that ultimately slaughtered thousands of innocent Japanese civilians.

“In my mind, it’s a war crime that has been well hidden,” said Kenny-Gilday. “We were the first civilian victims of the war.”

Canada and the bomb

On July 28, 1931, the first precious cargo from Gilbert LaBine’s new discovery – consisting of eight tons of rich radium-bearing ore – is loaded onto a small craft at LaBine Point, on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake (McTavish Arm), NWT | Public Archives of Canada C-23960

On July 28, 1931, the first precious cargo from Gilbert LaBine’s new discovery – consisting of eight tons of rich radium-bearing ore – is loaded onto a small craft at LaBine Point, on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake (McTavish Arm), NWT | Public Archives of Canada C-23960

In 1930, Gilbert LaBine discovered uranium near Sahtú, but he shut down the mine at the outbreak of World War II. In 1942, federal Minister of Munitions and Supply C.D. Howe, with vast powers in the MacKenzie King government, told LaBine to reopen the mine and instructed him:

“Get together the most trustworthy people you can find. The Canadian government will give you whatever money is required. … And for God’s sake don’t even tell your wife what you’re doing.”

Hundreds of Canadian scientists collaborated with allied scientists on the atomic bomb program, for which Canada supplied the uranium and heavy water. Canada also had representation on the Combined Policy Committee that administered the atomic bomb program. Canada’s Howe was among the committee members who approved the use of the bomb on Japan.

On 6 August 1945, B-29 bomber Enola Gay dropped Fat Man on Hiroshima, a city of 343,000, killing 100,000 people immediately and levelling the city.

Howe declared in a public statement on August 5, 1945 that it was his particular “pleasure” to announce that Canada’s role “guarantees us a front line position in the scientific position that lies ahead.” Liberal Prime Minister MacKenzie King recorded in his Diaries on August 6 that, “It is fortunate that the use of the bomb should have been upon the Japanese rather than upon the white races of Europe. I am a little concerned about how Russia may feel, not having been told anything of this invention or of what the British and the U.S. were doing in the way of exploring and perfecting the process.” [2]

In 1998, six members of the Sahtugot’ine went to Japan to commemorate the victims of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an atrocity that some Sahtugot’ine unwittingly had a hand in, a role they now regret.

Canadian genocide machine

On 22 March 1998, community evidence was presented to the Canadian government alleging “prior knowledge and ongoing complicity in the environmental crime” suffered by the Dene First Nation of Deline. Chief Raymond Tutcho said:

We, the Dene, have been subjected to over 60 years of horrible injustice because of apparent national interests. Our people have paid for this with our lives and the health of our community, lands, and waters. We have set out a ‘Plan for Essential Response and Necessary Redress.’

The six-point plan called for immediate crisis assistance, a comprehensive environmental and social assessment, full public disclosure, clean-ups and monitoring, acknowledgment of government responsibility, and community healing and cultural regeneration.

Tutcho’s call saw the formation of the Canada-Deline Uranium Table (CDUT) in 1999, which was charged in 2002 with putting together an action plan “to describe, scope and recommend studies and activities that, when completed, will provide information necessary to enable the CDUT to make informed decisions about long-term management of Port Radium site and any ongoing health requirement …”

Cathy Mackeinzo, manager of the CDUT, stated that “the community, leaders and community, had agreed to work with the federal government to address joint issues.”

“At that time people thought it was a good process,” she said. “It’s working out to date.”

A final report, due for completion in March 2005, has since been extended to June. Danny Gaudet, chief negotiator of the CDUT confirmed that no special treatment of radiation-afflicted people been undertaken “other than developing assessments of high risk patients.”

In response to the over “60 years of horrible injustice,” without compensation, without health treatment, and without an environmental cleanup, Mackeinzo admitted that there was “a lot of outstanding grieving” in the community and that she was only speaking in her managerial capacity.

The Deline Uranium Team’s November 2004 newsletter suggests frivolity. The newsletter detailed how 15 Deline community members and four CDUT staffers flew over for a tour of the mine, had a cup of tea, enjoyed the view from above, and felt “tired but satisfied” afterwards. While some speak of action, the noxious environmental and health risks linger.

Howe is eponymously memorialized by a right-wing think tank, but his name is also linked to enormous suffering.

Note

  1. See Robert Davis and Mark Zannis, Montreal: Black Rose, 1973.

2. The infamous statement was later expunged from The MacKenzie King Record, the 1968 biographical project of his literary executors, though his Diary was kept as a record to recount and explain the conduct of public affairs and is described in the official Canadian military history as “the most important single document in twentieth-century Canadian history.” The same liberal statesman also urged in 1944 that all “disloyal” Japanese-Canadians be deported as “soon as physically possible,” while those adjudged “loyal” should be physically dispersed.

Kim Petersen was a contributing writer, Shunpiking Magazine in Nova Scotia and later co-editor, Dissident Voice. He wrote this article in April 2005 for The Dominion. Slightly edited for this publication.

1 Comment

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One response to “From Sahtú (Great Bear Lake) to Hiroshima and Nagasaki: Canada and the atom bomb

  1. Pingback: Hiroshima and Halifax - Nova Scotia Advocate

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