Wollaston Lake open-pit uranium mines, Saskatchewan. Photo:Google Earth

I was very fortunate to participate in the Keepers of the Water conference in Wollaston Lake, northern Saskatchewan, in mid-August. It was my first time to this remote community, which can only be reached by barge/boat or airplane as there are no roads that go directly there. People say the water there is clean enough to drink right out of the lake, which I saw someone doing. The lake, one of Saskatchewan’s largest, certainly looked beautiful, though I hesitated to drink from it like the locals.

Wollaston Lake was the site of protests against uranium mining in 1985, when roughly 200 indigenous people and their allies blocked traffic in and out of Rabbit Lake (now the world’s second largest uranium mine) and Collin’s Bay. This was documented in Miles Goldstick’s book, Wollaston, which describes Saskatchewan as the Saudi Arabia of the uranium industry. Unfortunately, the extraction continued, and Canada is the world’s largest exporter of uranium because of northern Saskatchewan, which is the epicentre of the mining. A new proposed Millennium Project would be “150 km from Wollaston Lake, an area already inundated with radioactive tailings from past mines,” according to Dr. Jim Harding.

Because uranium radiation “has no taste, no sounds, no form by which it can be seen, and no odour” (Judge Robert McCleave, 1982), its carcinogenic effects may not be immediately apparent, but take time to unfold in the affected people and animals. Though I enjoyed the fresh caribou and whitefish served on my visit immensely, I did wonder about eating wildlife caught in proximity to the uranium mining.

As Dr. Manuel Pino pointed out at the conference, the “dendritic patterns of the water ways” mean that the wastes and tailings do not remain contained underground but leak out into the environment, eroding indigenous people’s food sovereignty as game and fish become contaminated over time. For this reason, the Navajo in the United States, who have over 1,300 abandoned mines on their reserves, decided in 2005 to refuse to allow any more uranium mining on their lands. As a water-soluble metal, uranium “emits radiation until it stabilizes into lead in 4.5 billion years” (Jim Harding, 2010). Its short-term benefits in terms of energy result in long-term problems, as no one really knows what to do with waste that has such a long shelf life.

As one of the conference speakers, Bob Patrick, pointed out, we can’t talk about energy without talking about water. And the conference brought home to me how crucial it is to understand and respect water’s tendency to keep moving, to connect all forms of life in its ceaseless flow.

Generously hosted by the Hatchet Lake Denesuline First Nation, the conference structure was as fluid as the topic of water itself. A one-hour elders’ panel on the conference schedule spontaneously expanded into over eight-and-a-half hours of testimony over two days, as 23 elders spoke movingly of how important water is, how cancer caused by mining has killed many family members, how uranium mining and tar sands expansion is poisoning the land. Any elder who wanted to speak was given time, and the way the telling unfolded was an excellent lesson in patience and community love; over and over in different ways, elders stressed the importance of working together to respect and protect the water.

It was my first time to be immersed in the Dene language, for there was simultaneous translation between Dene and English during the whole conference, and it was truly exciting to hear the Dene language thriving in Wollaston Lake, spoken by children and elders alike. In Dene, the term for uranium is “dada-thay,” which translates as “death rock,” which is how I think people should start describing it in English.

Fast death or slow death, we cannot afford to be naïve about the military uses to which the uranium has been put. Saskatchewan has supplied the U.S. nuclear weapons industry and nuclear power plants with “death rock.”

Some other highlights of the conference include hearing Chief Allan Adam, who was elected by the Athabascan Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) based on his opposition to the reckless expansion of the tar sands. In September, the ACFN will be announcing legal action to protect caribou habitat in northern Alberta. They are also developing their own environmental protection policy, since Alberta’s has been so ineffectual and meaningless.

George Poitras of the Mikisew Cree informed us that a health study completed last year showed 30 per cent more cancers than expected in his community of Fort Chipewyan, downstream of the tar sands, adding strong evidence to support the moratorium that the Mikisew Cree have been demanding since 2006. Poitras has done a lot of inspiring work, including winning a legal battle that set a precedent requiring the federal government to consult First Nations when proposing roads that traverse traditional indigenous lands. And the serious health concerns identified by First Nations communities are reinforced by a new study co-authored by scientists Erin Kelly, David Schindler and others, identifying high levels of toxic metals like mercury, arsenic, lead and cadmium being released into the Athabasca River by the tar sands.

The Keepers conference gave me a much better sense of not only the threats to water across B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but also the incredible work that is being done on the frontlines to protect water in the north where the mining and oil extraction happens, out of sight of the cities. The work is deadly serious, but it is also deeply joyful, as participants played as hard as they work; each night, there were lively social activities –singing, dancing, bingo, fireworks, a talent show and more, building a sense of community and relationship that sustains people in hard times.

I appreciated the sense of ceremony and protocol at work in the community; we began with the lighting of a large sacred fire outdoors, which burned throughout the entire length of the conference. Watching the fiery sparks leap into the big Saskatchewan night sky, I felt the sense of strength and hope needed to commit to the work of protecting water.

There are two observations worth keeping in mind.

Canadians are responsible for an immense amount of damage; Jamie Kneen of Mining Watch points out that 70 to 80 per cent of mining companies in the world are Canadian. It is our responsibility to educate ourselves about what we don’t see, what’s underground, what’s up north. That is where neo-colonialism is happening today, as industries make land uninhabitable, jeopardizing traditional food and water sources as well as indigenous cultures.

Whether it’s uranium waste slowly decaying or tar sands tailings ponds slowly leaking, the cumulative effect of toxic pollution needs more serious attention than government and industry are giving it. A December 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences pointed out that the equivalent of a major oil spill happens every year on the Athabasca River if you measure the polycyclic aromatic compounds that have been leaked over the year all at once.

Water moves constantly through the biosphere, leaking, spilling, slowly seeping everywhere, subtly powerful in a peaceful, interconnected way, and we need to learn to think, see, and act like water if we want to protect future generations.

Rita Wong is a poet and the author of monkeypuzzle (Press Gang, 1998), forage (Nightwood, 2007) and sybil unrest (Line Books, 2009,co-written with Larissa Lai). She is currently researching the poetics of water.

Photo of Rita Wong

Rita Wong

Rita Wong is a poet-scholar who has written several books of poetry. She understands natural ecosystems as critical infrastructure that must be protected and cared for in order to survive climate crisis....