There was very little awareness in northern Saskatchewan about the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and its search for a host community for Canada's nuclear waste when it was suddenly brought up in the middle of a healing circle about youth suicide and substance abuse in Pinehouse in May 2011. Since then, awareness has spread and opposition continues to mount.
Dene elder Louis Wolverine, 84, does not want nuclear waste in northern Saskatchewan and he is far from alone in that position.
"We just don't want it. Lots of people is against it where I come from - Patuanak," Wolverine told the Media Co-op. "I never heard the leaders, the chief and council talk about it, eh, just us elders. The people there talk about it and we all make our mind, eh. We just don't want it for our future time."
Wolverine's community is part of the English River First Nation, which is currently in the NWMO site selection process. Early last year, many people were still not aware that NWMO had already been visiting the north in search of a site or that their band or town council had expressed interest in being a host community for a deep geological repository for Canada's nuclear waste. The Northern Village of Pinehouse has been under consideration since 2010.
Following the death of several youth in an accident, elders from several surrounding communities were invited to a healing circle near Pinehouse on May 9, 2011.
Max Morin, a Cree resident of Beauval, was on his way home from Edmonton on May 8 when he received word of his invitation. He had been attending a two-week Trauma Recovery certification course, learning tools to help youth deal with trauma and grieving. Now retired, Morin dealt with youth suicide prevention, substance abuse prevention and community healing over the course of his 27-year career as a police officer, primarily in Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan, BC and the Northwest Territories.
"I was invited to attend a talking circle at Muskwa Lake, which is at Pinehouse, to discuss ways to help the youth in the north with drug and alcohol abuse and suicide prevention," Morin told the Media Co-op in an interview in northern Saskatchewan. "Just the previous weekend before that, there was a rollover accident, where some young people rolled over and four or five of the youth there died. And I guess this brought it on for Pinehouse to try to react to it, so they invited elders from four communities."
"The talking circle was at least between thirty and forty people. And there was ten elders from Pinehouse. There was an elder from Canoe Lake, one from Jans Bay and one from Ile-a-la-Crosse. And myself and the young person I went with," he said. The remaining participants were Pinehouse residents, said Morin, including facilitators Glen McCallum and Vince Natomagan, who came in late.
The talking circle was going really well, said Morin. Participants were discussing how to address suicide and substance abuse in northern communities. Morin and several others had never even heard of the Nuclear Waste Management Organization until it was suddenly brought up by one of the facilitators from Pinehouse.
"Halfway through the talking circle, one of the facilitators wrote 'NWMO' on the chart and 'Duty To Consult' right under it. And this was shortly after Vince Natomagan had joined the talking circle. He had come in with a briefcase and with some paperwork that he spread out on the table," said Morin. "The red flags went up right away."
Ten elders from Pinehouse left immediately, he said. Others walked out soon after learning what NWMO stood for and that the local facilitators were advocating for a nuclear waste repository in the area. They were pitching NWMO funding as a solution for youth suicide and substance abuse.
"They were saying that was their saving grace, that was their only alternative, was NWMO. And they said they would get money from NWMO and that would help solve the suicide issues and the drug and alcohol issues," said Morin. "Right at that meeting I asked the facilitators, I said, 'why are you guys bringing this up? Are you guys working for the community of Pinehouse? Or are you guys working for NWMO?' They said, 'to tell you the truth, we have to work, we have to get a salary. We are getting paid a salary by NWMO right now.'"
Although Natomagan and McCallum were trying to convince people to stay another night to continue discussions, after hearing their explanation, Morin also left.
"That's how the healing circle was sabotaged," he told the Media Co-op.
Morin took the news home and within a week, a few people organized and held a public forum in Beauval to learn about and discuss nuclear waste issues. Beauval, English River First Nation and Pinehouse residents attended the forum and passed a motion to form a Committee for Future Generations. In less than a year and a half, the committee has hosted numerous community events, organized an 800-kilometre walk from Pinehouse to Regina against nuclear waste, and delivered more than 12,000 signatures to the provincial legislature on the committee's petition demanding the Saskatchewan government enact a ban on the transportation and storage of nuclear waste.
Jules Daigneault, 70, is an active supporter of the Committee for Future Generations in his home community of Ile-a-la-Crosse. He says that he and other elders like him who off the land - hunters, trappers, fishermen - are never informed of or invited to meetings with NWMO because they consider protecting the land, water and everything within them to be non-negotiable.
"I want to protect my land. If you give me a million dollars right now, I wouldn't take it," Daigneault told the Media Co-op in an interview by the shore of Lake Ile-a-la-Crosse. "I just want to let the people know that our land is very very precious, very valuable."
"We don't want any poison to come up north," he said.
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist and member of the Vancouver Media Co-op. She recently returned to the west coast after spending eight weeks in Saskatchewan.