In the Great Lakes region—close to the Canadian-American border—there is a small city. The body of water this city lies on is shared by two countries, and so too are the patterns of conduct that have been exemplified by this city. One country sold the other uranium, the material that made this town. Welcome to Elliot Lake.
It is a relatively isolated town of around 11,000 folk in southern Ontario, just north of Lake Huron. It’s named after a small lake on the northern edge of the town. Elliot Lake is a young city, just over 60 years old. The Ojibwa people are not so young and have lived throughout the area for many years. Elliot Lake was the summer home of the Ojibwa nation, and there was a burial ground on one of the lake islands. In the modern day there is the Serpent River First Nation that lives not far from Elliot Lake on an Indian Reserve of the same name. The city started as a planned community for the uranium mining industry during the 1950s. It was once the ‘Uranium mining capital of the world’, with 12 mines operating over the town’s lifespan. Elliot Lake was once one of the fastest growing cities in Canada and created many jobs, although few of these jobs were available to the First Nations, despite the fact that uranium exploration occurred mostly on Native lands. All of these mines are now closed. The final mine ceased activity in 1997.
Starting in 1955, the uranium industry functioned in relative peace for a decade or so until the US decided that it would cease buying uranium from Canada by 1962, which it did. This could have killed the city had it not been for the federal government’s promotion of CANDU reactors and Ontario Hydro’s (a public utility company) interest in atomic energy. The quiet peace and growth of Elliot Lake was disrupted again by the high incidence of lung cancer and silicosis (the thickening and scarring of lung tissue caused by inhaling dust) among the miners. They went on strike over these health concerns and the safety conditions of the mines. This outcry culminated a Royal Commission report which, along with other studies, found that the Elliot Lake miners had lung cancer rates double the average and that the radon gas from the mines were contributing to this. This radon gas had already been linked with increased cancer rates. It soon became clear that the entire region and its population had been exposed to increased radiation levels. This is because millions of tonnes of radioactive waste rock and tailings remain even after a uranium mine has ceased activity. This refuse contains 85% of the original radioactivity of the ore and gives off at least 10,000 times as much radon gas as undisturbed ore. After this point, peace for the uranium industry here was rare. An accidental spill in August 1993 of two million liters of tailings from a containment pond entered McCabe Lake, which then entered and effected 90 kilometers of the Serpent river. The Serpent River Indian Reserve lays 80 km downstream from the mines. This incident was likely the final nail in the Lake Elliot mining industry’s coffin.
By the early nineties there was increased coverage on the issues of the area and the issues facing aboriginals and the uranium industry across Canada. Unlike the radiation from the tailings, the media attention faded and Elliot Lake went on. Radiation is undetectable by any of our five senses and the types that come from tailings last for hundreds to thousands of years, a human eternity. Ten smaller lakes in the Elliot Lake area that had become tailing ponds are now permanently destroyed, as the lakes were used as dumping grounds for radioactive waste. The Serpent River region is rich with wildlife and because radioactive materials are absorbed and compounded by the food chain, the local animals ended up with high levels of radiation, which end up being hunted and fished by the First Nations of the area. The manners in which the tailing ponds were created and maintained have been acknowledged as out of date and unacceptable to continue.
To quote a report on the damage of water quality in the area, “The impacts on Serpent River ecosystems were therefore very severe and encompassed all the lakes extending over a distance of tens of kilometers during a period of 30 years. However, the Elliot Lake ecosystem[...]was essentially spared”. The area of the aboriginal community ended up paying the higher ecological price.
Situations like Elliot Lake are not rare. The Navajo people of the US, aboriginal communities of northern Saskatchewan, communities in the Northwest Territories, and many others have all faced the brunt of the North American nuclear industry. I’ll leave you with a story told by Gilbert Oskaboose, a Serpent River Indian Reserve resident, taken from a 1990 documentary by the National Film Board:
“White people came here long time ago, eh...took all the furs, trapped all the beaver out, and otter, and the mink; things like that and they gather them--all these things up--and they went away. They left us in the bush and the rocks. Wasn’t too long later there, they came back again. They call that logging; cut down all the trees--white pine, red pine--cut it all down, and they left us on the bare rocks. Then they discovered uranium here and the old man said, ‘Now the sons of bitches are back for the rocks.’”