Current Problems


PM dismisses Algonquin concerns over Chalk River nuclear waste dump

February 14, 2024

Trudeau touts nuclear safety commission’s expertise as Bloc leader allies with First Nations

A man holds a sign on Parliament Hill.
Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg Chief Dylan Whiteduck participates in a rally against the Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) project at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories Chalk River site, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on Wednesday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

CBC Indigenous: Algonquin leaders are finding the Canadian government largely unmoved, but they continue to fight construction of a radioactive waste dump on unceded territory near Deep River, Ont., roughly one kilometre from the Ottawa River.

First Nations chiefs have allied with Bloc Québécois and federal Green Party leaders, joined forces with concerned civil society groups, and launched a legal fight against the project. On Wednesday they all rallied on Parliament Hill to voice their united opposition.

“The time to act is now, for the sake of our environment, our communities and the principles enshrined in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” said Lance Haymond, chief of Kebaowek First Nation, at a news conference outside the House of Commons.

While legally non-binding, the UN declaration, or UNDRIP, outlines minimum human rights standards, including against storing hazardous materials in Indigenous territories without their consent.

Last month, the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) authorized construction of a “near surface disposal facility” at the government-owned, Second World War-era Chalk River nuclear laboratory, about 190 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. 

Kebaowek applied for judicial review of that decision earlier this month, relying largely on UNDRIP. Three citizens’ groups applied for judicial review the same day.

Later on Wednesday in question period, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dismissed the concerns, swatting away questions from Bloc leader Yves-François Blanchet, who picked up the cause.

“This is not a political decision. On this side of the House, we trust our experts,” said Trudeau in French.

Chief stands in building
Lance Haymond, chief of Kebaowek First Nation in Que., opposes the construction of the NSDF and feels Indigenous groups and communities were not involved early enough in the project. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

Trudeau touted the commission as an independent, science-driven, quasi-judicial expert panel that consults with First Nations. But Haymond suggested Trudeau, always keen to recognize how Parliament Hill sits on unceded Algonquin land, is failing to live up to his promises.

“Actions speak louder than words. Reconciliation is a series of actions, and not words,” Haymond told reporters. “So if this government is serious about reconciliation with the Anishinaabe people, we’ve given him and his government a golden opportunity.”

Run by private sector

Regulatory filings describe the disposal facility as similar to a municipal landfill, with added features for hazardous material, such as a base liner, cover, leak-detection system and wastewater treatment plant.

Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL), a private-sector consortium contracted to manage federal nuclear sites, intends to bury a million cubic metres of low-level radioactive waste in the giant hillside mound.

The commission concluded the project is not likely to cause significant adverse effects on the environment or Indigenous peoples, provided CNL implements mitigation and monitoring measures.

Ten out of 11 federally recognized Algonquin First Nations oppose the project, while the Algonquins of Pikwàkanagàn, roughly 150 kilometres northwest of Ottawa, is the lone community to consent.

Before hosting a rally outside, Haymond and other Algonquin leaders joined Green Party leader Elizabeth May, Bloc MP Sébastien Lemire, and Ole Hendrickson, spokesperson for the citizens’ groups that launched a court challenge. 

May accused the government of ignoring UNDRIP in the interests of industry. She singled out AtkinsRéalis, a member of the CNL consortium better known by its former name SNC Lavalin, the engineering giant that pleaded guilty to fraud in a 2019 corruption scandal.

“They are the powerful corporate lobbying interest behind ignoring UNDRIP, ” May told reporters.

A rally on Parliament Hill.
People participate in a rally against the Near Surface Disposal Facility (NSDF) project at the Canadian Nuclear Laboratories Chalk River site on Parliament Hill on Wednesday. (Justin Tang/The Canadian Press)

Asked for comment, CNL said it’s aware of the applications for judicial review and is taking time to review and analyze the filings before deciding its next steps. “CNL will continue to ensure the safe management of these historic waste liabilities and operational wastes now and for the long term,” the consortium said.

“We remain fully committed to building meaningful relationships through ongoing engagement with Indigenous communities as part of Canada’s journey to reconciliation.”

Tritium in Perch Lake

Hendrickson warned the mound “would release pollutants into the Ottawa River during and after operation, according to the proponent’s own study. This makes it an issue for millions of people.”

CNL does plan to dump effluent laced with radioactive tritium into Perch Lake, but only in certain circumstances and only with treated wastewater that meets safe discharge targets, its environmental impact statement says. Perch Lake, an Ottawa River tributary via Perch Creek, has been subject to nuclear contamination for decades from 1950s-era waste disposal at the lab.

Kitigan Zibi Chief Dylan Whiteduck referenced the nuclear-mutated “three-eyed fish” from The Simpsons.

“I can’t believe I’m saying that, but that’s the kind of scenario that might occur in the future,” said Whiteduck. “It’s mind boggling, this whole process.”

The safety commission found CNL’s plan “is expected to have negligible impact on tritium concentrations in the Ottawa River” near the site, with tritium levels remaining well below Canadian drinking water standards.

Natural Resources Minister Jonathan Wilkinson endorsed the general near-surface method of radioactive waste disposal last fall but hasn’t taken a position on the Chalk River disposal site itself.

His office declined to comment for this story, citing the lawsuits.

“As the CNSC is an independent body, and there are two judicial review applications currently before the courts, it would not be appropriate for the minister to comment any further on the project,” wrote spokesperson Carolyn Svonkin.

Haymond also asked Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault to deny CNL a permit under the Species at Risk Act but received no reply. 

In a scrum with reporters, Guilbeault likewise deferred to the safety commission’s expertise, but said in this case his department is not responsible for issuing permits.

The CNSC said in a statement it welcomes the Federal Court reviews and any direction the court may have, but is unable to comment further.


Brett Forester, Reporter

Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.