WHAT THE ASSEMBLY OF FIRST NATIONS SAYS ABOUT NUCLEAR WASTES

There are many people across Saskatchewan that worry that a First Nations or Métis community will make a private deal with industry to create a nuclear dump in the province. This raises fundamental issues about protecting Aboriginal and Treaty Rights and Canada’s democracy. It’s therefore a good time to refresh our memories about what national Aboriginal groups have said about this matter. Here I will look at the Assembly of First Nations (AFN); however the Métis Council of Canada (MCC) has said similar things.

The AFN represents more than 630 First Nations across Canada, and 270 of them live in regions being considered for nuclear wastes. And the AFN has been engaged in the nuclear waste controversy from the start. It participated in the federal Seaborn Inquiry which in 1998 reported that Canadians did not support the Atomic Energy of Canada (AECL) proposal for deep geological burial of nuclear wastes. About its involvement in this review the AFN said, “First Nations expressed concern that: they had not had the time to study the proposals; the proposals did not incorporate traditional ecological knowledge; the proposals strongly conflicted with their deeply held beliefs; and they doubted they would derive any significant benefit from agreeing to accept a nuclear waste facility in their territory. These concerns have not abated with time.”

The AFN also participated in Parliamentary hearings leading to the Nuclear Fuel Waste Act, Bill C-27, in 2002. Then in 2004 the AFN initiated a First Nations-led dialogue to raise awareness and build capacity to address the matter of nuclear wastes. In Sept. 2005, after extensive cross-Canada consultations with First Nations, including across Saskatchewan, the AFN released its “Recommendations to the Nuclear Waste Management Organization”, or NWMO.

THE AFN ON THE NWMO

Right off the bat the AFN expressed concerns about the NWMO’s conflict of interest, saying “First Nations are not convinced that the NWMO is the most suitable organization to be conducting public dialogue or making recommendations to the Canadian government because they are comprised of nuclear energy producers.” The AFN was very concerned about the “industry’s apparent predilection for ‘remote areas’ for deep geological disposal”, saying that “Some First Nations expressed concern that their need for economic opportunities could be manipulated to facilitate an otherwise unwelcome decision.” This is the AFN’s words!

The AFN was also deeply concerned about the NWMO interfering in the relationship between First Nations and the Crown, saying “The NWMO is not an agent of the Crown and therefore cannot fulfill the Crown’s fiduciary obligations to First Nations”. The AFN was very clear that the dialogue conducted by NWMO “…has not fulfilled the federal government’s obligation to consult…”

THE NUCLEAR FUEL SYSTEM

The AFN reported that “First Nations are deeply concerned about the state of our environment. Our Elders advise us that we should think of the impact of our actions seven generations hence. Nowhere is this truer than with respect to the creation and disposal of nuclear waste. The production of energy from nuclear sources is fraught with peril. Disposal of the waste can have unforeseen and potentially dangerous impacts far into the future even if managed with the utmost care and caution.”

The AFN was not happy with the NWMO’s narrow approach, and said “First Nations are seeking a review of the entire nuclear industry chain, from mining uranium to nuclear energy development and the disposal of low, intermediate and high level waste.” The AFN was clear that “From a First Nations’ perspective the environment must be considered holistically, as opposed to segregating parts of it into dispensable units that are somehow unconnected to the rest of the environment. In this regard, First Nations were reluctant to confine their considerations to the issue of nuclear waste disposal, but wish to discuss all issues related to nuclear development, from mining, to energy policy, to nuclear armaments.” The AFN went on to call for “independent First Nations research on the effects of nuclear development…the entire nuclear energy chain, not just waste management.” A main recommendation was to examine “all aspects of the nuclear chain, including low and intermediate waste, and provide a clear understanding of the impacts the whole nuclear process has on First Nations quality of life.”

TRADITIONAL KNOWLEDGE

The AFN reported that “The Elders are concerned about the future based on their traditional knowledge, the youth are concerned with living with the legacy of nuclear waste disposal, and women are concerned about protecting the water for all people and the environment as this is their traditional role.” The AFN also took issue with the way the NWMO tried to appropriate traditional knowledge, saying “To cite with favor the seven generations teachings while at the same time promoting nuclear energy is inconsistent at best and at worst denigrates and belittles the value of Traditional Knowledge and the First Nations’ cultures, beliefs and spiritual understandings.”

The AFN had no qualms about stressing “the need for more renewable energy and intensive energy conservation”, and recommended “resources to assist First Nations to develop renewable sources of energy to serve their communities.” The AFN also reported that “First Nations have expressed a great deal of concern over the transportation of nuclear fuel waste.” The AFN continued, “First Nations are concerned that a decision made by their neighbouring communities to volunteer to host a waste management facility could have a detrimental impact on their Aboriginal and Treaty rights”. It continued, “Conversely, a decision by a First Nation to host a facility would have to consider the impacts on their non-Aboriginal neighbours.”

SUPPORTS NATIONAL BAN

The AFN was also concerned that the NWMO’s focus on what it called “remote areas”, where indigenous people live, could make Canada attractive as “an international repository for nuclear fuel waste”, and recommended that Canada “pass legislation specifically banning the importation of nuclear waste.” I have never seen this AFN call for a national ban mentioned in Saskatchewan’s mainstream media.

The AFN ended its report: “One of the most fundamental teachings of First Nations is the obligation to care for the earth. It is a firmly held belief by First Nations that they are entitled to be sustained and to prosper from the lands and resources given to them by the Creator, but that they also hold sacred responsibilities to care for the earth in a responsive manner. First Nations continually expressed concern about the impact of the nuclear industry on the land and all people. Our greatest concern is to ensure the long term sustainability of the land, as it is our deep and abiding connection to the land that holds our future.”

Could anything so fundamental have changed since the AFN issued this report five years ago? Be assured that there are many non-First Nations, settler people throughout Saskatchewan willing to work for the same ends. Getting a ban on nuclear wastes coming into Saskatchewan is a challenge for us all to work together to protect the future.

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