'That’s how reconciliation works': Why Ottawa pressed pause on Ontario’s nuclear waste dump

The federal government says a proposed nuclear waste site on the Bruce Peninsula can only go forward with Indigenous consent. Local First Nations are calling it a victory
By John Michael McGrath - Published on September 6, 2017
Ontario Power Generation is looking for permission to permanently store low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste underground. (AP Photo/John Flesher)

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Randall Kahgee can hardly believe more than a decade of work is starting to pay off.

“Could I have imagined 14 years ago that our people would be in a position to really start shaping the resolution of these issues? I don’t think so; I couldn’t have dreamt it,” he tells TVO.org. “This is a unique opportunity not just for us but for all of Canada to demonstrate how these things need to be done going forward.”

“These things” are the multiple nuclear projects either planned or in operation around the Bruce nuclear generating station in Tiverton, Ontario — and on the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s traditional lands. Nuclear power has been in the region since the Douglas Point reactor went online in 1968; its successor plant has been operating for 40 years. Now Ontario Power Generation is also proposing to build a deep geological repository — an underground waste site for low- and intermediate-level nuclear waste.

Kahgee is the point man for the Saugeen Ojibway Nation (consisting of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation and the Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation) whose territory includes the site of the current nuclear plant as well as the proposed waste site. He served as chief of the Saugeen First Nation for eight years.

On August 21, federal Minister of Environment and Climate Change Catherine McKenna issued a letter asking OPG to provide a description of the “potential cumulative effects” from the waste repository on the “Nation’s spiritual and cultural connection to the land.” In other words, it’s not simply the construction of the waste site but also its ongoing impact on Indigenous communities the OPG needs to account for.

Crucially, McKenna’s letter says the utility’s response must include the results of the Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s consultation process. In effect, Ottawa has said the process can’t proceed without Indigenous consent.

At first glance, the guarantee might not seem very important. OPG had already committed in 2013 not to proceed with the waste facility without Saugeen Ojibway Nation’s consent. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization, which is still deciding where to put a repository for high-level nuclear waste, made a similar commitment last year. But in Indigenous relations, the position of the federal government is itself always important.

“You can have a commitment from the proponent, but if the Crown isn’t respecting or supporting that accommodation, there’s always the concern — that, given our people’s history, we have the right to be suspicious — that we don’t know if OPG is going to pull the rug out from underneath us,” Kahgee said. With Ottawa behind them, Kahgee’s community doesn’t have to rely on OPG’s good intentions alone.

As Indigenous reconciliation moves rapidly from a novelty to a core element of ministries’ decision-making, Kahgee says the federal government’s move shows what reconciliation means in real, concrete terms, and points the way forward for future large projects.

“This represents a fundamental victory for all Indigenous people in the country, and it’s an example really of how these things need to be done. This will be the first project of its kind in Canada, and for us it’s not a 200- or 300-year project, it’s a forever project.”

OPG says it’s “reviewing” McKenna’s letter and will continue the “respectful, ongoing dialogue” it has opened with Saugeen Ojibway Nation, which itself will host a pair of conferences, in September and in October, at which members can learn more about the project and its ramifications for future generations.

The waste repository is not the only nuclear-related issue Saugeen Ojibway Nation is dealing with. There are the “legacy issues” as well, including a half-century of nuclear power use in the area and a lack of economic opportunities for local Indigenous people.

“We haven’t benefited in a real and meaningful way. If you look at the surrounding municipalities, their entire economies are built around those facilities,” Kahgee says. Both Bruce Power (which operates the nuclear plant) and OPG have historically been major employers in the region, and local leaders’ friendliness with the nuclear industry is partly why the area was selected for the waste facility in the first place.

But addressing the legacy issues is a separate (though not unrelated) discussion, and Kahgee says his community isn’t going to insist they be addressed before it consents to the repository. If nothing else, the Supreme Court has recently ruled that environmental assessments aren’t the proper way to address historical grievances.

There’s understandably profound divisions within Saugeen Ojibway Nation over whether to agree to big projects like this, as well as skepticism over whether promised benefits to the community will actually materialize. The community might yet say no — something that would truly test the federal government’s commitment to reconciliation. For now, though, more than a decade of activism has paid off with a formal recognition of their right to decide.

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