In the summer of 1998, representatives of the Dene people of Great Bear Lake in the far north of Canada went to Hiroshima to express their remorse for having hauled the uranium ore that went into the atomic bombs dropped on Japan. They had had no foreknowledge of what they participated in, and they suffered afterwards from the effects of radiation, but still they felt responsible.
Until the 1990s, because of their isolation and neglect by the Canadian government, they had little understanding of where those “money rocks” had gone, and little awareness of the rocks’ connection to numerous deaths among them from strange new illnesses. But then journalists, academics and filmmakers began to appear with questions about the past and information about the causes of those illnesses. The Dene were dismayed by the neglect they had suffered, but were equally burdened by the new awareness of what they had helped to bring upon Japanese people. Their sense of responsibility knew nothing of the civilized impulse toward self-exculpation. They felt responsible for not having asked questions about what they had agreed to work on, for not having made every effort to understand the implications of their participation. The world might be a better place if everyone tried to live up to this ethical standard.
In 1998, Canadian journalists, in particular Andrew Nikiforuk of The Calgary Herald, shed light on the story of the Port Radium mine, and in 1999 the documentary film “Village of Widows” covered the story, including the trip by Dene representatives to Japan. Peter van Wyck returned to it more recently in his book “Highway of the Atom”. Nonetheless, the story is forgotten (or never-known) history for most Canadians. When a nuclear-powered Soviet satellite crashed over the Northwest Territories in 1978, widely dispersing radioactive waste over Canada’s uranium mining belt, it was an irony lost on everyone.
The most interesting twist in the story is that in 2005-06, during the peak of the so-called “nuclear renaissance,” film director David Henningson headed up to Great Bear Lake to make “Somba Ke: The Money Place,” a documentary about the relations between the Dene and Hiroshima and Nagasaki (watch it here). During filming he found that attitudes had shifted since 1999, and he ended up making a film very different from the one he had set out to make. The Dene were now reluctant to speak of the past because a mining company called Alberta Star had concluded an agreement with them to reopen the uranium mine. This time, of course, the Dene were promised that things would be different, and they were eager to have some economic development. However, the community was still divided, and in 2008, the Deline Land Corporation (Dene controlled) announced they would oppose all future uranium development until remaining issues with the old Port Radium mine were resolved.
However, at the time Henningson was making his film, the pro-development faction was influential, so the trip to Hiroshima was called off and Henningson found many of the locals were mysteriously unwilling to speak with him. Three years later in 2011, the multiple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi put an end to the hope for a nuclear renaissance. With existing mine operations slowing down now, it is unlikely that the Deline Land Corporation could sell uranium even if they wanted to.
At other active uranium mine sites in Northern Canada, indigenous communities are divided on their support for nuclear energy, but for the most part they have made peace with the atom and are working for and with uranium mining companies. As far as I know, none of them have offered apologies for the Saskatchewan uranium that was in the Fukushima Daiichi reactors.
The major article that broke the story of Port Radium after fifty-five years of neglect was Andrew Nikiforuk’s work in The Calgary Herald in 1998. As Alberta and Canada have taken on the typical characteristics of a petro-state, the mainstream media has had little tolerance of energy critics like Andrew Nikiforuk. This may be the reason this important piece of journalism and others that he wrote don’t exists on the Calgary Herald website. He now covers the Alberta Tar Sands and the energy crisis for The Tyee, one of Canada’s best alternative media journals. The 1998 article can now be found on the website of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
The Port Radium mine was first exploited in the 1930s when uranium was still considered a metal of no value. At that time it was radium in the ore that was valuable for its use in cancer treatments and luminescent paint. The discovery of rich ore in the far north of Canada was important enough for the Eldorado Mining and Refining Company to set up a processing facility in Port Hope, Ontario.
Ten years later, when the Manhattan Project began looking for sources of uranium, its two major sources were the Congo and the Port Radium mine. The processing plant in Port Hope became one of the more important facilities in the race to build the bomb. It did the primary processing of both the Canadian and the African ore, and sent it south through the Niagara Falls and Buffalo area. Processing facilities there, like the one in Port Hope, also left a legacy of radioactive contamination that is another example of forgotten nuclear history.
Canada and the UK were junior partners in the Manhattan Project, eager to supply the Americans with whatever they asked for, including secrecy and an absence of political debate about what was being built and how it would be used. Because America led the Manhattan Project, Canada and the UK could evade their responsibility and keep their participation out of the spotlight. The Manhattan Project came to be understood worldwide as an American project. Hundreds of books and documentaries have been made about it, many classified documents have been released, and American nuclear workers have been compensated to some degree for injuries.
In contrast, many of the documents related to Canada’s role remain classified, and the public remains generally ignorant that Canada participated in the Manhattan Project at all. Few academics and journalists have written about the trail uranium followed from Port Radium to Port Hope, known as the Highway of the Atom. One reason for this invisibility is the extreme remoteness of the Port Radium mine, and the small number of people involved in the work, but the main reason must be that most Manhattan Project operations were done in the US, and after the war America controlled the narrative about how the bomb was built.
When the Canadian story finally got some exposure in the 1990s because of Andrew Nikiforuk’s work, the Dene began to speak up about the illnesses among them, and Canadian officials had to respond. Health studies were done by Canadian nuclear regulatory agencies which, unsurprisingly, concluded that no causal relation could be proven between cancer deaths of the native ore carriers and their assumed exposure to radiation.
In the film “Somba Ke: The Money Place,” the biologist Rosalie Bertell had this to say about the official study:
… whoever set this up knew very well that there was no feasibility for a traditional epidemiological study using current techniques … you can’t do modern epidemiology on a small community. So to do an expensive study of the feasibility was ridiculous. They decided that they would use cancer death as a criterion for the seriousness of the contamination … They kind of forgot about all the other health effects, although they were well known and they were known to the Canadian Government. It was pretty well spelled out for them in official documents. But I thought it would be more direct and efficient to do blood samples on people as well as 24 hour urine analysis to find out if there was uranium in the body. It would have been simpler, more direct and cheaper, much cheaper. Around $30,000, which is a pittance compared to what all these engineering firms take.
Andrew Nikiforuk was also interviewed in the film and he pointed out that, in spite of the history of dreadful abuse and neglect suffered by aboriginal communities, in this age they have some power as communities that can speak with a common voice and get attention. The government had to at least go through the motions of investigating their suffering. The natives carried the ore and transported it on ships and barges, but it was white laborers from the south who worked in the mine. After a few years of work, they scattered to various places throughout Canada. Their health outcomes were ignored until it was mostly too late for them. Nikiforuk recounted in the film:
… after the story ran [in The Calgary Herald], I was amazed at the number of calls I got from white miners who worked at Port Radium and who were all reporting health problems. I got many calls from widows who explained to me that their husbands had died of cancer … The final report which I think cost close to seven million dollars is really a travesty, on a number of fronts. It’s very narrow in its scope, it only addresses the health issues of approximately 30 Dene … it doesn’t mention the health problems the Navajo had in the southwest of the US, it ignores the fact that thousands of European workers were exposed to dangerous tailings and radon gas in the mine. It doesn’t look at any of the broader issues.
It’s so narrow it’s almost useless. It keeps the whole issue narrowly confined to one place and makes sure very few Canadians, or very few Japanese, or very few Americans ever find out about this history. I am not surprised by the fact that there is little or no opposition from the community in Deline. And I think it is important for people outside of the country to recognize that a lot of issues in Northern Canada are resolved by buying people off. And the Federal Government does this on a routine basis. They have bought a lot of silence in Northern Canada on the issue of uranium mining.
It would be nice if we could say this is all history and lessons have been learned, but in recent years the policies of the federal and provincial governments seem destined to lead to the similar environmental and public health disasters. Scientific research has been defunded and muzzled, while energy corporations have sanitized media coverage through the influence they exert as sponsors. There are grave doubts that the tar sands can be developed without disastrous impacts, and the public seems to just shrug at the prospect of a sacrifice zone the size of Greece. Meanwhile, uranium mine tailings and spent nuclear fuel present a hazard lasting into the deep future, yet these too are issues that the mainstream of society is not expected to think about.
Port Radium (Eldorado) Timeline 
1932: Port Radium begins production. Mines Canada issues health warnings on radon gas and radioactive dust.
1939: Canadian ore used in first atomic chain reaction experiment.
1940: Port Radium closes.
1941: Port Radium reopens for war effort, as world’s first uranium mine.
1942: United States government orders 60 tonnes of uranium. Canadian government secretly begins to buy out mine. Dene work as coolies.
1945: Bombs dropped on Japan.
1949: U.S. officials raise health concerns about Port Radium miners.
1953: First Port Radium miner dies of cancer. United States government secretly begins health studies on U.S. miners.
1956: Value of uranium production hits $1 billion in Canada.
1957: Elliot Lake mine opens.
1960: Port Radium mine closes. No uranium left. First Dene dies of cancer.
1967: First radon standards set.
1974: First uranium miners with lung cancer compensated by Ontario.
1976: Ham Royal Commission slams government for hiding health information from miners. First Ontario studies published.
1979: First cancer death study on Port Radium miners.
1988: Canadian government merges Eldorado with the Sasktachewan Mining Development Corporation to form Cameco.
 Peter Blow (director), “Village of Widows” (1999; Lindum Films), DVD.
 Peter van Wyck, Highway of the Atom (McGill-Queens University Press, 2010).
 Andrew Loewen, “Legal action seeks transparency from Northern Village of Pinehouse regarding uranium contracts,” Briarpatch Magazine, January 27, 2014.
 Andrew Nikiforuk, “Echoes of the Atomic Age: Cancer kills fourteen aboriginal uranium workers,” Calgary Herald, March 14, 1998.
 Geoff Kelly and Louis Ricciuti, “The Bomb that Fell on Niagara,” Artvoice, September 24, 2008.
 David Henningson (director), “Somba Ke: The Money Place” (2008; Urgent Service Films).
 Henningson, “Somba Ke.”
 Julia Sisler, “Research Cutbacks by Government Alarm Scientists,” CBC, January 10, 2014.
 Nikiforuk, “Echoes of the Atomic Age.”
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