The Saskatchewan government may have faith in the consultation process carried out by the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) in its search for a site to hold highly radioactive spent fuel bundles from nuclear reactors, but affected northern community residents beg to differ.
“The Government of Saskatchewan recognizes the efforts of the NWMO in its attempt to identify a safe and secure site in an informed and willing community to host Canada’s long-term nuclear fuel management facilities,” according to a copy of correspondence from Premier Brad Wall obtained by the Media Co-op. The letter is dated October 10, 2012, but was sent this morning to Pat McNamara, in response to a recent open letter to the Premier by McNamara, outlining related concerns.
“The NWMO site selection process involves extensive open consultations within the willing host communities. The support of the residents of these communities, as well as the surrounding region, is a requirement to move forward in the site selection process,” wrote Wall.
Local authorities in the communities involved in the site selection process - including Pinehouse, English River First Nation and Creighton in Saskatchewan - have expressed interest, but none of the locations have yet been deemed “willing host communities” as Wall’s letter suggests. Exactly how that determination will be made remains unclear. But a pressing concern for many northern residents is the way in which the so-called consultations are playing out in their communities.
Pinehouse resident Fred Pederson, 70, was employed as an elder at the local school, working with students in shop class on a variety of projects. He learned of his community's involvement in the site selection process when students were taken out of school to hear from local northern village officials about the issue.
“They were taking the students out of the school and taking them to the hall, the village hall, and they were having meetings with them. They wouldn’t allow any adults in there,” Pederson told the Media Co-op in an interview. He learned about the content of the discussions from his students. “They were talking about how much money they can make and how their future depends on the nuclear waste storage in Saskatchewan and all of that,” he said.
According to Pederson, community residents being uninformed about meetings going on in their midst is not a one-time occurrence. Most of the visits to Pinehouse by NWMO representatives are unannounced meetings with the village mayor and council behind closed doors, he explained.
“We’re never told the dates. We’re never told they’re coming in,” he said. “They go and have a closed door meeting with these guys. And then the public is never told what they’ve discussed or nothing. We are not told. The people are not told what goes on in the meeting, ‘cause [it’s] just them guys themselves.”
Critiques of the secrecy surrounding NWMO meetings abound in communities in northwestern Saskatchewan. Île-à-la-Crosse resident Jules Daigneault, 70, was out on the lake in his skiff looking for moose one day when he stumbled upon a NWMO meeting across the lake.
“They had a secret meeting over here,” Daigneault told the Media Co-op in an interview by the shore of Lake Île-à-la-Crosse. One of the last times he had been at the South Bay campground was when he saw a number of trucks parked there and ventured over to see what was going on.
“I parked the same place where I parked, tied my boat, came up here. They were having a meeting. ‘Oh, we got an elder,’ they said. So I sat down,” he said. “I just sat there for half an hour, maybe an hour, listening.”
Along with community-level paid promoters, at least two of the individuals at the meeting were direct NWMO representatives, Daigneault recalled. Much of the discussion focused on funds for community projects.
“They brought briefcases and they sounded so beautiful, just like they had a million dollars in their pockets,” he said.
“When it was my turn to talk, I told them ‘What about the animals? What about the bears and the moose? Where are they going to drink water from? Nuclear waste – what if [the truck] tips on the highway and it leaks to the water? It’s gonna all be poison,’” he said. “We have so many beautiful lakes, I said, and we’re going to destroy everything.”
“Oh, they didn’t say anything. I said our land, our water, our fish, our animals, they’re worth billions and billions and billions of dollars, I said, and those are ours to keep. We can’t cash it, but we can use it to eat, feed our families, enjoy ourselves. We can cut down trees, build a cabin. You know, we can cut down willows and build a teepee. We can do anything with our forests as long as we take care of it. Money won’t last very long, but the lake will last thousands and thousands and thousands of years,” said Daigneault.
“They all looked at me and stared at me. Some of them were ready to swear, I think,” he said. “They didn’t want to hear this, but I happened to stumble on a meeting.”
NWMO handpicks individuals who value money above anything else and they resist input from hunters, trappers and others who rely on and protect the land, Daigneault told the Media Co-op.
According to its Statement of Vision, Mission and Values, NWMO will "be responsive to a diversity of views and perspectives." The organization developed a Transparency Policy in 2008, based its value statement on Transparency: "We will be open and transparent in our process, communications and decision-making, so that the approach is clear to all Canadians."
Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall may trust NWMO's site selection process, but northern residents have seen little evidence of transparency. The issue at hand may be when the alleged extensive open consultations will begin.
Sandra Cuffe is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist who recently returned to the west coast after spending eight weeks in Saskatchewan.