Impacts of Uranium Mining at Port Radium, NWT, Canada

(last updated 7 Sep 2005)


Uranium exposure insufficient to cause cancer in Déline workers

A report says scientific data does not show a link between cancer rates in Déline and the Port Radium mine.
Men from the N.W.T. community were hired to carry sacks of uranium ore from the mine, which opened in 1929 and operated for decades. Cancer cases started showing up and the community became known as the "Village of Widows" receiving widespread attention.
But, the report, which looks how much uranium a worker may have been exposed to over time, says those employees' exposure levels weren't high enough to cause cancer, contradicting widely held opinions by many local people. Dr. Douglas Chambers, a radioactivity expert hired to double check the team's scientific data, says he believes the science is solid.
"The Déline to my knowledge never worked underground at Port Radium. The potential risk of cancer associated with transporting the ore concentrate is extremely small and in fact so small it would not be detectable in the variability of natural cancers and factors of effect cancers such as smoking," says Chambers.
The report was supposed to come out last spring and is now expected to be published in early September 2005. (CBC Aug. 12, 2005)

On September 6, 2005, Déline community members were given the findings of a five-year effort to examine the health and environmental impacts of the government-owned radium and uranium mine that operated from 1931 to 1960. Radiation exposure has long been a concern of the Dene residents of Déline, especially for the 35 people who worked transporting uranium ore from the mine and weren't told of its potential risks. Déline, a community of about 550 people across the lake on the ore transport route, lost so many of its men to cancer it became known as the Village of Widows. "The report itself made it clear that there is a difficulty trying to link direct cancer with being exposed to radiation," said Danny Gaudet, the negotiator representing Déline. "But at the same time we cannot deny that maybe they did die of cancer (from radiation exposure). We can't prove it either way." Gaudet said the community has lost 15 former ore transport workers to cancer. The report found the numbers are too small to accurately study the link. One study showed that based on a reconstruction of radiation doses the workers would have been exposed to, one or two more cancer deaths would be expected in addition to the nine or 10 that would normally be expected in a similar group. (CP Sep 6, 2005)

Call for Federal Response - March 23, 1998



DELINE, N.W.T., March 23, 1998: We, the Sahtúgot'ine (the Dene of Great Bear Lake) have been subjected to and continue to suffer from a grave injustice imposed on us by the Canadian government. Without being told of the deadly hazards of radiation, our men carried radioactive ore and our families and children have been exposed to radiation for over 60 years.

We are concerned, in particular, about:

  1. The deaths of our community members from cancer and other radiation and mining related diseases and the psychological and social impact these deaths of have had on us; and
  2. The presence of millions of tons of radioactive waste in our Great Bear Lake environment, which we regard as our source of food and spiritual nourishment.

On Sunday, March 22, 1998, we held a community meeting in which we released to the community evidence of Canadian government prior knowledge and ongoing complicity in the environmental crime we have suffered.

Speaking for the Dene First Nation of Déline, and its Band Uranium Committee, Chief Raymond Tutcho said:

"We the Dene have been subjected to over 60 years of horrible injustice because of apparent national interests. Our people have paid for this with our lives and the health of our community, lands and waters. We have set out a "Plan for Essential Response and Necessary Redress". It is a constructive and minimum response to the ongoing impacts of uranium mining on the Dene people and lands".
At our Community meeting last weekend we decided to present this plan to the Canadian government, and the Ministers of Indian Affairs, Health and Mines. These Ministers have stated they are "concerned", and that this is a "horrible situation". We are hopeful that they will agree that our plan is a reasonable response to the injustices we have suffered. Our plan includes:
  1. Immediate Crisis Assistance
  2. Comprehensive Environmental and Social Assessment
  3. Full Public Disclosure
  4. Clean-ups and Monitoring
  5. Acknowledgment of Government Responsibility
  6. Community Healing and Cultural Regeneration

For further information: Cindy Kenny-Gilday, +1-867-873-4695 or Andrew Orkin, +1-905-529-3476

Background articles

A Village of Widows

by Cindy Kenny-Gilday

The community of Déline, 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 Déline, 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 Déline 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 Déline, 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 Déline 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 Déline are now living in fear of their land, water, animals and worried for their own health and survival.

Déline 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.

> See also: Cancer killed 14 uranium workers: Echoes of the Atomic Age (Calgary Herald, March 14, 1998)

More information

Video documentary The Village of Widows by Peter Blow

> Search Northern News Services (Yellowknife) archive for "uranium"

> Port Radium decommissioning (Northwest Territories)

compiled by:
WISE Uranium Project (home)