Interview: The Dene People
Q: I am joined today by a member of the Sahtu Dene tribe from the community of Deline in the Northwest Territories. First of all, thank you for coming. What can you tell us about your community and the meaning of your names?
A: The Dene is an aboriginal group living in the northern boreal and arctic regions of Canada. Dene is the common Athabaskan word for people and Sahtu is our name for Great Bear Lake, the fifth largest freshwater lake in Canada and ninth in the world. Deline is located 300 miles from Yellowknife with a population of 800 and means “where the river flows”.
Q: Deline was featured in the film Village of Widows after discovering the devastating effects of radiation poisoning from uranium mines. But let’s start from the beginning, when and where did mining start?
A: Port Radium was owned originally by Eldorado and secretly became a government-owned mine in 1942. The men started work in 1932, mostly working as labourers and carriers for the unrefined pitchblende ore. From 1934 to 1939 we mined radium and between 1943 and 1962, uranium. It was seen as an exciting job opportunity and everyone was eager to participate.
Q: The Canadian government didn’t tell you of the dangers and effects of the substances?
A: Not at all. As far as we were concerned, the stuff was gold; it was worth a lot of money. I remember some of the young men joining training programs where they suffered radon gas exposure and cleaned up toxic hotspots without any protection from masks or even shower facilities. We did not know about the ore being health hazardous until 1945 when the government finally warned us about health and people started becoming sick.
Q: However, from what I understand, not only workers were affected by the effects. How did the radioactive ore spread through the community?
A: Like I said, we knew nothing about the dangers of the ore mined from Port Radium; before the mine, there was no industrial presence in our area. The men carried around sacks of the ore and tailings so it got into their clothes, into their skin. At one point we sewed some of the sacks to make tents and we also filled sandboxes from the fine sand-like tailings. Radioactivity went into the animals, our food source, our lake, and drinking water. The substance surrounded us and became a part of our lives, so unfortunately really everyone was affected.
Q: The toxic substance must have a huge impact on the environment and land as well; how much of it is in your land and how has it affected your people?
A: Waste landfills and lake dumps are everywhere. The tailings were dumped around the site and over 1.7 million tons of uranium waste was dumped north of Great Bear Lake. Our land, animals, and people have now been living with radioactivity for over 70 years. The first death of a radium mine happened in 1953, and an ore transporter in 1960. Since then there has been many deaths from poisoning, cancer, and other sicknesses. There are many single mothers now in Deline, and the generation of young men in this village is the first to grow up without knowledge passed on from their grandfathers, fathers, and uncles.
Q: In addition to hiding the health dangers of the ore, is it true that the government did not tell you what the uranium was to be used for?
A: Yes, we had no idea that the uranium we were mining and transporting was to be used in the Manhattan Project to create the atomic bomb. When we realized our work was used for objects of mass murder, we were horrified. Hearing about the absolute destruction dropped onto Hiroshima and Nagasaki made us want to take back all our work and despise our sacrifices even more. Had we known that the ore was making bombs, we would have never worked produced it. Until this day, we feel regret for contributing to that disaster.
Q: You must have felt outraged that the government neglected your health and denied you the information that would’ve saved many lives. The Dene people were unjustly used for labour; what actions were taken after your meeting with Parliament in Ottawa in 1999?
A: Well let me just say that white miners were as uninformed and abused as we were. We realized that the government did not care for any of us, so we went to Ottawa to ask for major cleanup of our community and an apology for the cultural, economic, spiritual, and emotional damage that they have caused us. It was a small victory for us to even get a formal meeting with the leaders of our country. They didn’t grant us our wish at the time, but we raised significant awareness and were closer to getting the improvements we wanted.
Q: I know that your tribe visited Japan and attended the memorial of August 6, 1945 as a way to pay respect and restore inner peace with the Japanese people. Why did you feel the need to go and what was it like to visit Japan?
A: We felt it was our duty to offer them our condolence, and it was necessary for our inner peace to apologize and make amends with the people whom we hurt. It was a very emotional trip; we cried when we saw footage of the explosions and the suffering that we caused. We lit lanterns and talked to many people; by the end we knew we made the right decision to come – it was a releasing and gratifying experience.
Q: What accomplishments have taken place at Deline now, and what are the Sahtu Dene’s visions for the future?
A: In 2007 we succeeded in negotiating with the government and earned a contract of 6.8 million dollars to help clean up the wastes. There is still a lot to be done to get rid of the radioactivity in Deline, and we will continue to fight for our rights as people. We are still trying to understand how something so bad could come from our Mother Nature; we celebrate the world we live in and pray for a better future.
Q: Thank you so much for your time; this has been such an eye-opening conversation. We wish you all the best!
Republished from 2010 Geography class. It is a hypothetical interview inspired by viewing 1999 documentary Village of Widows by Peter Blow.
Thanks for reading,