A Village of Widows

by

Cindy Kenny-Gilday

The community of Deline, N.W.T. has a Dene population of 800 people. We are located right on the shore of Sahtu (Great Bear Lake) about 300 miles north of Yellowknife NT. We are the only tribe and the only human community on this lake. Sahtu (Great Bear Lake) is the ninth largest in the world and the fifth largest in Canada. Great Bear Lake is probably the last fresh water lakes in the world.

The area on the north shore of Sahtu (Great Bear Lake) has been the site of radium mining from 1934 to 1939, then a uranium mine from 1943 to 1962 and as a silver mine from 1962 to 1982. The Dene of Deline, mostly men worked as labourers and as coolies carrying gunny sacks of radioactive uranium ore and concentrates on the transportation route. Tons of tailings both radium and uranium mine were dumped directly into the lake and used as landfill. In 1975 young men from Deline were sent to work in the tunnels on a Government training program without masks for radon gas exposure. In 1997 ten young men were sent with two hours of training to clean up "hot spots" of radioactive soil in Sawmill Bay without shower facilities. There was no other industrial presence before this Port Radium mine or any other since their closure to date.

Port Radium was owned and operated by a crown corporation of Government of Canada. Uranium ore and concentrates were extracted, milled and sold to the US Government for the Manhattan project. The US Government tested the explosions in Navada near another First Nations reservation. They built the atomic bomb which they dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. All without informing the Dene and all without the consent of the Dene of Deline, the First Nations whose land, resources and people were used.

Because of the subsistence livelihood which continues to date, our people the Dene travel extensively on seasonal and rotational basis around the lake; following their main food source, the caribou and the fish. Not just the men but families were generally exposed to the various waste landfills and lake dumps over the years. They were not warned about the hazardous nature of these ores and tailings, and took no precaution with respect to working with this toxic substance, their drinking water or their traditional foods.

It is only recently that the Dene of Deline were informed of these exposures. They have been advised of "hot spots" of radioactivity in the Sawmill Bay area, one of the areas for which they traded other territory in their land claims agreement because of its subsistence priority use. Bennet fields, spiritual gathering grounds was also confirmed by the Government of Canada as contaminated. The Dene of Deline are now living in fear of their land, water, animals and worried for their own health and survival.

Deline is practically a village of widows, most of the men who worked as labourers have died of some form of cancer. The widows, who are traditional women were left to raise their families with no breadwinners, supporters. They were left to depend on welfare and other young men for their traditional food source. This village of young men, are the first generation of men in the history of Dene on this lake, to grow up without guidance from their grandfathers, fathers and uncles. This cultural, economic, spiritual, emotional deprivation impact on the community is a threat to the survival of the one and only tribe on Great Bear Lake.

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