Kebaowek First Nation brings radioactive waste fight to Parliament Hill

By Natasha Bulowski
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Canada's National Observer

Kebaowek First Nation and opponents of a recently approved radioactive waste disposal facility took the fight to Parliament Hill on Wednesday with a peaceful rally urging the federal government to stop the project.

“We stand united in safeguarding the well-being of our shared environment and the fundamental right of all Canadians to access clean and uncontaminated drinking water,” said Kebaowek Chief Lance Haymond at a morning news conference.

Shortly after, more than 100 people rallied at the Centennial Flame on Parliament Hill to oppose the project, which would hold up to one million cubic metres of radioactive waste about one kilometre from the Ottawa River.

Following the rally, Algonquin leaders watched question period from the gallery where Bloc Québécois Leader Yves-François Blanchet pressed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the waste facility.

Kebaowek is officially challenging the decision by the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) to greenlight construction of the “near-surface disposal facility” (NSDF) on the basis that the commission did not secure the First Nation’s free, prior and informed consent during the licensing process, as required by the United Nations Declaration Act. A second legal challenge launched by three groups argued the CNSC failed to consider a range of evidence about the project design and the radioactive waste it would take. A handful of nuclear industry veterans warn some of the waste slated for disposal is a “mishmash” that contains unacceptably long-lived radioactivity, as reported by Canada’s National Observer.

“The NSDF is the wrong technology in the wrong place,” said Ole Hendrickson, representing the three groups. “What a terrible precedent for future radioactive waste facilities.”

Haymond came to Ottawa “to ask the current federal government, nation to nation, to step in and stop the nonsense decision made by the CNSC.” At the press conference, he was flanked by Indigenous leaders and MPs from the Bloc Québécois and the Green Party.

This is a “golden opportunity” for Trudeau to prove that UNDRIP (the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) is more than just a piece of paper, said Haymond.

“I grew up watching The Simpsons and we’re going to have a situation potentially of three-eyed fish,” said Kitigan Zibi Chief Dylan Whiteduck, referring to the mutated orange fish found in ponds outside the nuclear power plant in the TV show. A big concern for opponents is the project’s proximity to the Algonquin’s sacred Kichi Sibi (Ottawa River) and the release of contaminants over time, both planned and unplanned, depending on how the containment mound holds up.

Whiteduck said “this whole process and the fact that Canadians are just allowing this to happen” is “mind boggling.”

“Accountability has to be on this government,” he added.

Whiteduck said Kitigan Zibi and other Algonquin First Nations will not join Kebaowek and act as intervenors in the legal case. Instead, he and other Algonquin chiefs will follow Haymond’s lead and fully support Kebaowek First Nation.

“It’s very important that we support him because we want to put a united front of all the Algonquin communities,” Henry Rogers, chief of Long Point First Nation, told Canada’s National Observer. Rogers is one of six other Algonquin chiefs and leaders who joined Haymond at the press conference and rally.

Sébastien Lemire, local MP and the BQ spokesperson for Indigenous relations, wants to see ministerial intervention. He reiterated the Bloc’s long-standing opposition to the project and said his party “unequivocally supports” Kebaowek’s legal challenge.

Haymond is “very disappointed” Energy and Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault and the prime minister have not directly responded. Specifically, he asked Guilbeault to withhold a permit that would let Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) destroy habitat for species at risk until Kebaowek’s legal challenge moves through the court.

At the time of publication, Guilbeault had not responded to Haymond’s request and did not directly answer Canada’s National Observer’s question about the permit issue at a press conference later that day.

Instead, Guilbeault pointed to the CNSC, which manages all impact assessments for nuclear projects, as well as Natural Resources Canada.

In an email, a spokesperson for Wilkinson said the ministry has no comment on the two judicial review applications and awaits the decisions of the court.

The minister “has no role in CNSC’s licensing decisions,” it reads, adding that the CNSC is an independent, quasi-judicial body that makes science-based decisions.

The federal government hasn’t taken a position, “but indirectly they have because they delegated their responsibilities and authority to the CNSC, who, in our opinion, have muffed up the decision,” said Haymond. Kebaowek is asking federal ministers to recognize there were errors and intervene to make the necessary adjustments and corrections.

“It’s playing environmental Russian roulette by threatening present and future generations,” Bloc MP Monique Pauzé said in French in a party press release.

Haymond and the three organizations behind the second legal challenge also want the International Atomic Energy Agency to undertake a thorough review of the NSDF and CNL’s waste management systems.

According to CNL, the estimated bill to construct and operate the NSDF is $750 million and Canadian taxpayers would fund it, said Hendrickson.

“The government of Canada owns the waste. It must take responsibility and not leave matters in the hands of profit-seeking private sector corporations,” he said at the press conference. As Green Party Leader Elizabeth May pointed out, CNL is owned by a consortium of three multinational companies including AtkinsRealis, formerly SNC-Lavalin, and two Texas-based companies, Fluor and Jacobs.

CNL was created by Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited in 2015 and sold to the consortium. CNL is contracted to run day-to-day operations at federal nuclear sites and is responsible for obtaining licensing permits under this government-owned contractor-operated model.

“We keep coming up against examples of where [the] United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is celebrated by Liberals until it gets in the way of a decision they’ve already made,” said May.

“We really need to … take a stand here,” said May. “The primary jurisdiction and sovereignty here is that of the Algonquin and Anishinaabe First Nations.”