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A mine in the Northwest Territories provided much of the uranium used during the Manhattan Project—unbeknownst to the indigenous people who worked there.
Long ago, there was a famous rock called Somba Ke—“The Money Place”—on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. Loud noises came from this place and it was bad medicine to pass near it. In the old days, a group of caribou hunters camped at Somba Ke for a night. One of them—a man named Ehtséo Ayah, known in his community as “Grandfather”—had a dream and saw many strange things: men with white faces climbing into a big hole in the ground, a great flying bird, a big stick dropped on people far away. This would happen sometime in the future, after we are all gone, the prophet said. In his vision, everyone died. Everyone burned.
Theresa Baton recounts this tale, recorded by the elder George Blondin, as we sit in her narrow, smoky trailer. There is a framed photo of Ayah on the sideboard. Baton is a strikingly beautiful woman, as slender and fit as her husband, Peter. They are two of the few Dene grandparents left alive in Déline, an indigenous community of several hundred people in the Northwest Territories.
In the waning days of World War II, the people of Déline and the white miners working at nearby Port Radium ferried bags of uranium ore from the Eldorado mine—where Somba Ke once sat—across Great Bear Lake. The ninety-pound sacks were carried on men’s backs, loaded onto boats and transported about two thousand kilometres south to Alberta. The crushed ore was refined in Port Hope, Ontario. Then it was sent to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico, where it was used to develop the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Few Canadians know about their country’s role in one of history’s most destructive acts of war.
The day before I visit the Batons, their neighbour Isadore Yukon—who transported the sacks by boat—tells me his arms would get red from the ore, and he’d grow so exhausted crossing back and forth over the lake that he’d lie down on the bags to sleep. Peter and Theresa moved to Déline a long time ago, and the uranium mine closed in the early 1960s. Theresa says that when they lived at Port Radium, the women would make tents from the sacks for their families to sleep in. There has been a lot of illness since then, and many deaths from cancer. Déline has come to be called the “Village of Widows.” The town’s surviving elders say the prophet Ayah warned them. These are people who still have no word for radiation.
For decades, the Sahtúgot’ine—Bear Lake people—had only heard rumours about where the pitchblende, or uranium, gleaned from their land ended up. In the 1990s, a meeting between the Dene and Gordon Edwards, co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, confirmed the deadly tie binding Port Radium to Hiroshima. Then an extraordinary thing happened. A Dene delegation got on a plane and went to Japan to offer the hibakusha—the bomb survivors—an apology.
In 2001, I learn that much of the uranium used in developing the atomic bombs dropped on Japan was from Great Bear Lake. This information comes from a colleague, Peter van Wyck, who wants to know if I’ll accompany him on a research trip. How would I like to follow the path of uranium from the Northwest Territories to New Mexico? I’ve always been attracted to catastrophic events: the fault lines in the psyche of a culture; the secrets that fester in families, leak quietly into communities and eventually—sometimes—explode. I work in theatre, so I decide to tell the story of Great Bear Lake’s uranium by writing an opera.
A year later, I find myself in the Batons’ trailer. Dizzy from the cigarette smoke, I stand up to leave. Theresa grabs my hand and thanks me for coming. “You didn’t bring one of those tape recorders,” she says. “That’s good.” Later, one of the community workers tells me, “Lots of people come to interview the elders here. Not many come to talk.” As I bundle into my new snowsuit, Peter shakes his head and insists on lending me a pair of long beaver mitts. He says the weather is unusually cold at minus forty-eight, and that, if I pay attention, I can hear ice crack.
I wave goodbye and stumble into the frigid air. As I head to my hotel, I pass the cemetery with its rows of tiny white crosses. Sitting offshore in a blanket of brilliance is Isadore Yukon’s old tugboat, the Radium Gilbert—retired sometime in the 1960s and bought by the Dene Band Council for one dollar. Her graffiti-scratched hull tilts drunkenly in the snow. When they took a Geiger counter through the boat years ago, it was her shower that had the highest levels of radioactivity.
I started going to seminars about how to survive a nuclear war when I was sixteen. It was 1971, and the peace movement—the one my generation thought would save the world—was just getting going. Helen Caldicott hadn’t yet terrified us with her documentary If You Love This Planet, but I still didn’t sleep at night. While my parents sat with their Scotches watching Ed Sullivan on our black-and-white television, I went to the field behind our house on the outskirts of Toronto to see if planes flying overhead would drop something big. I lived in perpetual anticipation of sudden explosions. I wanted to be sure that when the world blew up there would be an escape route, a door with an exit sign. One Sunday afternoon in August, I clipped an announcement from the Toronto Telegram, figured out the mysteries of the subway system and found my way to a convention hall downtown. There, I looked at exhibits about how to keep food for long periods of time, and took notes on staying warm underground during a Canadian nuclear winter.
After graduating from university, I took the train west to the coast. I had job leads in Edmonton and Vancouver, so I researched each city’s escape plan. Every municipality, now as well as then, has a strategy in the event of disaster. Edmonton felt safer because there were highways out of town. Vancouver made me nervous—all those mountains hemming you in on one side, the unforgiving ocean on the other. During a beautiful summer spent on Wreck Beach, while my new friends were falling in and out of love, I read survival manuals and discovered that the most organized city in North America was Seattle. There was a clear chain of command, one person who made the decisions and put the action plan into effect: the Fire Chief. I seriously considered moving there.
When William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize in 1949, he spoke about the curse of not having a future. “There are no longer problems of the spirit,” he said. “There is only the question: when will I be blown up?” In Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial, Robert Lifton and Greg Mitchell write that, since 1945, personal losses—the death of a loved one, dislocation from home—have merged with extreme threat: “Just as, after Hiroshima, every antagonism between nations takes on the potential for destroying the entire world, so does every personal trauma potentially take on that end-of-the-world association.” Every danger we experience, personal or private, puts us psychically on the edge of disaster, worrying about the next emergency: an earthquake in Japan, a friend with cancer, a depressed parent.
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