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Canada’s nuclear legacy

Myth, reality, and radium at Great Bear Lake

Canadian PoliticsEnvironmentIndigenous PoliticsScience and Technology

Entrance to the uranium mine at Port Radium in the Northwest Territories in 1947. The ore mined at Port Radium ended up in the United States for use in the Manhattan Project. Photo courtesy NWT Archives.

In 1930, Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories was the site of one of the most lucrative, controversial, and geopolitically significant mineral discoveries in world history. The mineral was radium, an ore that derives from the decay of the uranium atom and which, in the early twentieth century, was considered a panacea for a huge variety of ailments including cancer, depression, toothache, and more.

The extraction of Canadian radium by Eldorado Gold Mines Ltd. (later Eldorado Mining & Refining Ltd.) began with the exploitation of Dene land and labour on the coasts of Great Bear Lake and saw its calamitous fruition in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a still misunderstood act of barbarism that was only made possible with massive supplies of Canadian resources.

The centrality of Canadian radium to the US nuclear weapons program is an important episode in the history of Canada’s domestic and foreign policy, but it remains little-known today—even though its adverse effects on the Dene peoples in the Northwest Territories persist into the present.

The colonization of the north

The official history of Eldorado, as described by company founders Charles and Gilbert Labine, is a tale of dauntless southern zeal in the face of northern hardship—a veritable Horatio Alger tale in the Canadian north. Before examining the myths that underly Eldorado, however, we must first establish the indisputable: Great Bear Lake is the fourth-largest inland lake in North America, measuring over 300 kilometres in length and, depending on the latitude, between 40 and 175 kilometres wide. It has a maximum depth of 413 metres. The area around the lake is primarily inhabited by the Sahtúot’ine, or Sahtu Dene, sometimes called the Bear Lake people, whose territory extends over much of what is today Canada’s Northwest Territories.

“According to oral tradition,” writes Morris Neyelle, son of Dene elder Johnny Neyelle, “the Dene have occupied this area since time immemorial, and archaeological accounts show evidence of Dene habitation as far back as two to three thousand years ago.” Today, the largest concentration of Sahtu Dene on the shores of Great Bear Lake is the town of Délı̨nę on the western coast.

In the 1780s, European fur traders developed an interest in the lands around Great Bear Lake, but they did not establish much exploitative infrastructure in the region. This did not prevent them from assigning new names to each of the lake’s five bays: Smith Arm, Dease Arm, McTavish Arm, McVicar Arm, and Keith Arm. In the early nineteenth century, a number of interested parties, including the North West Company, began to establish outposts around the lake. In 1812, a North West Company agent wrote of the Dene lands that “I have no doubt that several kinds of ore might be found here.”

A number of subsequent encounters presaged growing European engagement with the people of Great Bear Lake. One of the region’s most decorated guests was Sir John Franklin, who led his Second Arctic Land Expedition in the region from 1825 to 1827 (today, Franklin is mainly remembered for captaining the disastrous expedition of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in search of the Northwest Passage). While at Great Bear Lake, he resided in a former trading post off the coast of Keith Arm that he renamed Fort Franklin, and his men mapped the shores and depths of the lake for the benefit of later European arrivals.

Several expeditions followed, most significantly that of geologists Macintosh Bell and Charles Camsell in 1900. While they were trapped by a storm at Echo Bay on the western shore, Bell noted: “In the greenstones east of McTavish Bay occur numerous interrupted stringers of calc-spar containing chalcopyrite, and the steep rocky shores which here present themselves to the lake are often stained with cobalt-bloom and copper-green.”

Up to the 1920s, the footprint of the Canadian government and business community in the region remained negligible. It was not until the advent of air travel significantly eased southern settlers’ ability to breach the north that prospecting and extractive investment began in earnest, many drawn by the promise of minerals such as those described by Bell in 1900.

Of the several mining concerns that sunk shafts around Great Bear Lake in the early twentieth century, the most significant was Eldorado Gold Mining Ltd. By 1930, Eldorado was failing—its gold mines in Manitoba had run dry—so founder Gilbert Labine decided to take advantage of the growing accessibility of the north and boarded a plane for Great Bear Lake. He claimed that his journey was inspired by Macintosh Bell’s vivid description of the area’s mineral wealth. However, he did not unearth copper or cobalt near Echo Bay. He discovered a copious supply of pitchblende, a uranium-rich ore that would take on great importance in the coming nuclear arms race. He also founded Port Radium on the lake’s eastern edge, which would serve as the refining centre of the area’s growing mining economy.

Pitchblende, long thought to be useless, was given value in 1902 when Marie Curie isolated radium, a radioactive decay product of uranium, from the ore. At the time, many considered radium to be a cure-all miracle mineral. It was one of the most expensive natural commodities on Earth, and the only other areas that produced it in great quantity were Saint Joachim’s Valley in modern-day Czechoslovakia and the Katanga region of the Belgian Congo.

Eldorado used local Dene labour to transport radium to the refinery, while the company’s leadership and the Canadian government expressed no concerns about the dangerous effects that exposure to the radioactive ore would have on the Indigenous peoples or the company’s miners. When uranium became central to nuclear testing by the United States during the Second World War, Eldorado was made into a crown company to better facilitate the production of the ore for use in the Manhattan Project.

Uranium from the Eldorado mines and the Belgian Congo provided 86 percent of the uranium for the Manhattan Project, and Canadian uranium was used in the bombs that levelled Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing around 200,000 innocent Japanese civilians—a complicity that was celebrated by the Canadian elite at the time, but has remained largely unacknowledged ever since.

The prophet of Great Bear Lake

In all official histories of the Eldorado mine, the ideological core remains unchanged: for centuries, the resources of this northern region were left to molder in the ground, tragically unused, until a southern man of grit and initiative made the daring journey upwards and hauled the region into the twentieth century. This is the story perpetuated by the mining community, endorsed by the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame, and reiterated again and again by the man at its centre: Gilbert Labine.

Charles and Gilbert Labine were born in 1890 in the Westmeath Township of Renfrew County, Ontario. They were educated there and eventually joined the prospecting rush to northern Ontario. Robert Bothwell, Eldorado’s corporate historian, gives the following description of the brothers: “Charlie was always the more rough and ready of the two, ‘a rough diamond.’ He had more than the usual drive and, judging from results, more than the usual charm…Gilbert, for his part, was independent, handsome, and like his brother, determined to succeed.”

Labine claimed that Bell’s description of minerals at Great Bear Lake inspired him to undertake the journey, and that while flying over the territory, he spied the pitchblende from the airplane and shouted for the pilot to land. He often contradicted this story, once saying that the pitchblende “could not be seen from the air and in fact could not even be seen where the first ore was found.” He once claimed it was not Bell’s writings that drew him to Great Bear Lake, but that after the collapse of his Manitoba operations he “overheard conversations among older men regarding interesting geological areas in that field,” and decided to head for the Northwest Territories. Another version of the story has Labine’s mail carrier from the Manitoba operation informing him of gossip he gleaned regarding rich veins at Great Bear Lake. The individual details, and their obvious unreliability, are trivial—what matters is the central colonial myth of white settler grit and Indigenous languor, which is the story that has persisted in the mining community to this day.

The Dene people of Délı̨nę, the community that developed around Fort Franklin after Sir John’s departure and the ones who have suffered the most due to the discovery of radium at the lake, have their own stories. Anthropologist Sarah M. Gordon collected many, and in her description, “virtually anytime Port Radium is discussed… the narrative is tied to some concept of death.”

One history describes an elder named Beyonnie presenting the visiting Labine with a chunk of pitchblende as a gift, which Labine brought south and used to stir up investment in Eldorado’s operations. Some allege that the story of Beyonnie and Labine was first conveyed by an extremely important Dene prophet named Louis Ayah, who died in 1940 but whose proclamations are studied to this day. Ayah’s prophecies often foretold the arrival of settler capitalism with an eschatological tinge that connected the deleterious effects of colonial extraction to a timeless, cosmic evil emanating from the site of Port Radium. Consider the following story of Ayah’s past, as told by two Sahtu Dene men in the Yellowknife-based News/North:

One day a group of Dene was passing through the area and they decided to camp near what would eventually become known as Port Radium. Among them was a powerful medicine man, the Prophet Ayha. During the night, the others awoke to the prophet singing… He said he saw boats and many houses with smoke coming out of them. There were people with white skin going into a great hole in the ground and coming back out with rocks. These people were carrying the rocks away and he decided to see where they were going. So in his dream state he followed them across Great Bear Lake and down along the river network to Fort McMurray and beyond there into the US. There the people made a long stick and put the rocks in it. They then loaded the big stick into a giant bird, which then took flight so he followed it as it flew over wide-open water. When it came back over the land, the bird dropped the stick and it burst into a giant ball of fire and many people who lived there were burnt. “Those people looked a lot like us,” said Prophet Ayha. “I was singing for them.”… Many years later, in September of 1940, the Prophet Ayha passed away. On August 6, 1945, the US dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later another fell on Nagasaki.

An unidentified man stands by stacks of pitchblende concentrate awaiting shipment at Port Radium, Northwest Territories in 1939. Photo by Richard Finnie/NWT Archives.

Canada and the Manhattan Project

After Eldorado revealed its radium finds to the Canadian government, state institutions mobilized to provide as much help as the private company required. Most of this assistance came through the Department of Mines, an increasingly active government institution that had used public funds to help establish 37 mills between 1930 and 1933 alone.

During the worst period of the Great Depression, the Department of Mines—which existed “to assist, to investigate, [and] to publicize the resources of Canada”—received enough government funds to set up a radium plant on Great Bear Lake and build an electroscopic laboratory which Eldorado employees and their advisors used to identify radium at the mines.

This robust subsidization paid off tremendously: in 1936, Eldorado produced its first full ounce of radium. In celebration, the company hosted a banquet in Ottawa that was attended by the Governor General Tweedsmuir and Prime Minister Mackenzie King. King recounts Tweedsmuir’s rather fulsome speech in his diaries, before adding some commentary of his own:

His Excellency… made a splendid address contrasting European development from the Fall of the Bastille, which began the French Revolution, with the discovery of the Mackenzie River by Mackenzie in the same year and subsequent movements in this country towards improving the well-being of mankind… I felt very proud of Canada, with what our scholars and men of science are doing.

Following a brief slump in radium prices due to Belgium’s brutal exploitation of the Congo deposits, Eldorado began 1942 with a bang. In March of that year, the US government placed an order for 60 tonnes of uranium to be used in the Manhattan Project. Uranium, previously considered a waste product, had been imbued with enormous value after the discovery of nuclear fission in 1939 and the subsequent application of the element to weapons research.

With both Czechoslovakia and Belgium occupied by Nazi Germany, Eldorado was well-positioned to supply the US government with the uranium it needed for the tests. While the US was able to use a considerable amount of Belgian uranium that the Anglo-Belgian mining company Union Minière du Haut-Katanga had abandoned in New York City, they needed a steady supply. Canadian production filled the gap.

As uranium sales increased and the nuclear arms race entered its nascent stages, Britain asked the Canadian government to nationalize Eldorado to ensure that uranium prices did not fluctuate. Britain was working on a nuclear weapons project of its own, stealthily titled “Tube Alloys,” and they wanted a stable flow of uranium to feed their research.

Minister of Trade and Commerce C.D. Howe needed little convincing. Ottawa was already coming around to this decision on its own, having resolved that Eldorado—whose rise had been so reliant on public sector funding—should be converted into a crown corporation owned by the Canadian government, but managed by Labine, at least for the duration of the war.

Despite revisionist history from the Canadian Mining Hall of Fame claiming that the government had “arbitrarily expropriated” the company, the nationalization was welcomed by Gilbert Labine. Labine was friends with Howe, and the two reached an amicable agreement that the Canadian government would quietly purchase shares of Eldorado until it was a majority shareholder, at which point a full nationalization would be undertaken.

The incremental approach was soon abandoned, and in January 1944 Howe announced in the House of Commons that Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. would become a crown corporation. While this was precisely what Britain had requested, they were doubtlessly chagrined when the Manhattan Project effectively monopolized work at Eldorado’s Port Hope refinery, tying Canada’s uranium industry to its continental neighbour at the expense of its colonial motherland.

The uranium core of “Little Boy,” the bomb that the US dropped on Hiroshima, was mined from Great Bear Lake. Dene labourers were involved in the extraction in various roles: providing food for the workers, clothing for the miners, and most importantly, transporting uranium without being informed of its adverse health effects. In the early 1960s, former Dene ore carriers began to die of cancer, deaths which they linked to the Eldorado mines.

The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. There is a wealth of critical historiography (particularly the work of Gar Alperovitz) that argues it was not a “tough but necessary decision,” as postwar US rationalization posits. This critical position argues that the bombings were actually a merciless show of force. They were dropped to both prevent a Soviet invasion of Japan, which would have deprived the capitalist West of a powerful satellite state directly beside the Soviet Union, and to dissuade the Soviets from challenging American dominance in the Pacific.

The atomic bombings were not the closing shot of the Second World War but the opening salvo of the Cold War, and the Canadian ruling class was thrilled to participate in the attack. When C.D. Howe received word of the nuclear bombings, he stated, “it is a particular pleasure for me to announce that Canadian scientists have played an intimate part, and have been associated in an effective way with this great scientific development.”

Eldorado came out of the Second World War a crown corporation, and it would remain that way until 1988, at which point it was merged with the Saskatchewan Mining Development Corporation and privatized under the name Cameco. Gilbert Labine died in 1970, one of the most respected figures in the Canadian mining industry and a legend in the mining community to this day.

Historical and present complicity

In 1998, the Dene people formally apologized to Japan for their role in assisting the Canadian government’s extraction of the uranium that was used to level Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though many of them had little choice. By contrast, the Canadian government has never publicly discussed its role in the bombings, let alone apologized to Japan for its involvement in US nuclear research.

Needless to say, Canada has never apologized to the Dene either. The only major step the government has taken toward redressing the damages it has done was a 2005 investigation into cancer rates at Délı̨nę. The final report stated that former ore carriers are no more likely to suffer from cancer than the average Canadian, a result that many Dene refuse to accept given Canada’s staunch refusal to humanely rectify its past and present atrocities against Indigenous peoples.

Morris Neyelle, who worked at the Eldorado mine in 1978, summed up his feelings thusly: “I can’t have that trust with [the government] if they don’t apologize… I really don’t understand because the community of Délı̨nę, they are a peaceful people. They’re prepared to forgive.”

Owen Schalk is a writer based in Winnipeg. His areas of interest include post-colonialism and the human impact of the global neoliberal economy. Follow him on Twitter @OwenSchalk.


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