-- Part of new longterm agreement First Nation has signed with Chalk River nuclear proponents --
Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation has provided its consent for the federal government’s plan to build a nuclear waste facility a kilometer from the Ottawa River at the Chalk River nuclear research station.
The facility will be used to dispose of the low-level radioactive debris that has accumulated at the site over the years, waste which currently sits above ground in temporary storage containers.
The consent comes as part of a long-term relationship agreement, announced earlier this month, between Pikwakanagan, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) and Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd (AECL).
The agreement will allow Pikwakanagan to conduct continued monitoring of all activities at the nuclear research facility over the next 15 years through a new guardians program, funded by the proponents.
Pikwakanagan councillor Don Bilodeau said the agreement does not mean giving the green light for the waste facility in its entirety, but enables members from the community to keep a closer eye on the project as it evolves.
“We’re not signing onto ‘Go…start bulldozing and blowing things up.’ We’re still part of the unpacking of the project, in a respectful way to living things,” Bilodeau explained.
Bilodeau was elected to council last winter. Prior to this position, he acted as consultant to the community on matters related to the consultations with CNL and AECL.
“As the project unpacks in more detail, including tree removal, construction, when the construction happens, how it happens, considerations for those things that are of value to us are going to be part of that. So, we’ll be there every inch of it,” he said.
Kebaowek and Kitigan Zibi surprised by Pikwakanagan’s consent
The agreement was announced the same week Kebaowek and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nations reported that after ten months of consultation with CNL and the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission, the industry’s federal regulator, they did not consent to the construction of the waste facility.
In a press conference in Ottawa on June 20, Kebaowek’s Chief Lance Haymond said he was only informed of Pikwakanagan’s consent for the project just prior to the June 9 announcement.
“We’re troubled by that decision,” Chief Haymond said. “What we see is a continuation of colonialism. Governments or their entities have learned to dangle a carrot, conquer and divide, offer something to one that is not afforded to the other and create division.”
“The sad part is that this is a First Nation who seems to have forgotten [its] responsibilities and priorities as protectors of the land and water…in exchange for a few potential jobs.”
Chief Haymond was joined by Chief Dylan Whiteduck of Kitigan Zibi, as well as two other chiefs, together representing 10 of the 11 Algonquin First Nations.
“I’d like to be clear. Kebaowek does not consent to the construction of the radioactive waste dump on the unceded territory,” Chief Haymond said. “We believe the consultation process has been inadequate and that our rights are threatened by this proposal”
But Bilodeau said the agreement is a win for all, not just Pikwakanagan.
“Now that we have this agreement, we’re inside the fence, and we’re not going to leave their voices unheard. So we’ve actually paved the way to bringing that monitoring component to what their concerns are, and not ignore them.”
Key issues resolved, Bilodeau says
At what were supposed to be the facility’s final licensing hearings in June 2022, Pikwakanagan listed ten outstanding issues which prevented it from providing consent for project.
These key issues include a lack of proper consultation, the proximity of the facility to the Ottawa River, the importation of radioactive waste into unceded Algonquin territory, and inadequate consideration of Algonquin knowledge when assessing the environmental and rights impacts the project would have.
Bilodeau said after extensive consultation since those hearings, most of these concerns have been addressed.
“A year ago we weren’t convinced, but we have seen things evolve,” he said. “In the last year, we’ve been able to go on site at Chalk River, we’ve been able to walk where the disposal facility will be, we’ve been given access to looking at the land, the water and so on, and have had people on site doing assessments.”
Bilodeau said it is this openness on the part of CNL and AECL, along with many opportunities for Pikwakanagan to share traditional Algonquin knowledge and worldviews with staff, that convinced the First Nation it could trust the proponents.
“Those relationships and those conversations signaled to us that we weren’t being appeased, that we weren’t being patronized, but that we were being heard,” Bilodeau said.
Regarding the siting of the facility, Bilodeau said he now has a better understanding of how the engineering of the facility will keep radioactive waste out of the Ottawa River.
“We’ve seen the measures that they’re going to put in to monitor water quality, to determine if there are problems and address them earlier,” he said. “Plus, it’s low-level radioactive, so it dissipates quickly. And so we understand these things now that we didn’t before.”
Unclear whether decisions on future projects at site will be respected
Bilodeau was adamant that signing this agreement was not equivalent to consenting to all future projects at the site.
“We may never consent to anything going forward,” he said, adding the only reason his government consented to the waste facility was that it believed this would be the safest way to deal with the legacy waste on the site.
“If we do not provide consent, we will be asking them to not proceed.”
But it remains to be determined whether Pikwakanagan’s future decisions on new projects at Chalk River will be respected.
“There’s nothing written into the agreement that Pikwakanagan’s consent must be obtained for future projects on the site. […] We must trust that they will respect our decision no matter what the decision is.”
Bilodeau said Pikwakanagan does not want to consent to new projects at the site.
One such project is the small modular reactor that CNL is considering for its Chalk River campus, for which an environmental assessment is already underway.
“So we’re being consulted on that as well,” Bilodeau said. “I’m not going to give you an answer on how that’s going to conclude, but we don’t want more.”
Sophie Kuijper Dickson
Pontiac June 27, 2023
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