A decisive vote by Saugeen Ojibway Nation members against Ontario Power Generation’s proposed deep geological repository (DGR) at the Bruce nuclear site should serve as a wake-up call to the Ontario government, says Anishinabek Nation Grand Council Chief Glen Hare.
“The vote was overwhelming,” said Hare. “It’s a wake-up call to consult with the people.”
On Jan. 31, the tallied votes of 1,232 SON members saw 1,058 voting against the ballot question: “Do you support OPG’s proposed DGR project as the permanent solution for low- and intermediate-level waste in the SON territory.”
In favor were 170 members, with four ballots spoiled.
SON members age 16 and over were able to vote via mail, online and in person. Online voting began on Jan. 11 with in-person voting held Jan. 31.
In a statement issued Jan. 31, Chief Lester Anoquot of the Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation called the vote a “momentous victory for our people.”
“We will continue to ensure that our people will lead these processes and decisions,” said Chief Greg Nadjiwon of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation in the same statement.
Chippewas of Saugeen First Nation and Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation comprise SON.
No further comments will be coming from SON leadership, said Corinna Serda, with the SON Environment Office, in email correspondence with Windspeaker.com.
She wrote leadership needs “time to consult with their Communities… Free, Prior and Informed Consent is an iterative process that evolves as it goes. The Community will inform the timeline moving forward.”
The nay vote wraps up a process that began in 2003 when OPG first approached SON. Two protocol agreements were signed between SON and OPG with the second agreement in 2009, including capacity funding for SON to engage in a review of the project.
An advisory team, appointed by the two band councils, met with OPG on an ongoing basis. In 2018, OPG engaged small community working groups before finally, in 2019, hosting 22 engagement sessions in SON communities and other parts of the province where members lived.
“That’s a long engagement at various levels with leadership and the community,” said Fred Kuntz, senior manager of corporate relations and projects with Ontario Power Generation, who added it was the process set out by SON.
“Was it enough time? Would another 10 years have made a difference? I don’t know.”
A 2018 report prepared by the Canadian SMR Roadmap Steering Committee, consisting of provincial and territorial governments, power utilities and supported by Natural Resources Canada called for “two-way engagement with Indigenous peoples and communities … well in advance of specific project proposals.”
The report noted that Indigenous engagement was not a “one-time checklist exercise.” It also called into consideration the “important historical context (with Indigenous peoples) beyond nuclear power, which has included many mistakes and failures that have led to an erosion of trust. Much work is needed to rebuild trust.”
Kuntz says the vote outcome did not surprise him and it wasn’t because of low turnout at engagement sessions, but because of “what we were hearing.”
“I’ve learned personally, having been involved in this engagement process …when you’re in those communities it’s very important to listen, to listen to those stories, to have an open heart and open ears because there’s pain out there. You look at the history of Indigenous relations in Canada … It’s a painful history and you have to let people express their pain. You have to listen and you have to be humble because if you’re part of settler colonial culture, you may not know all of the history,” he said.
However, beyond listening and building trust, Kuntz says there’s also the bad reputation that nuclear power has.
“Nuclear is part of the solution to climate change, but it has to overcome certain perception issues,” he said.
He points out that the proposed DGR is an “environmental protection project” with the site having been reviewed by federally-appointed independent experts, having received all the necessary environmental assessment approvals.
That’s not good enough, says Hare.
“I’ve always suggested …talking to my Elders and leaders as I’ve travelled, why don’t we go where we can monitor it at least 100 km from any shoreline? Because being a kilometre from the shoreline, never say never (to an accident) … The earth is starting to move… If that happens here and it starts to shake and the earth opens up, who are you going to blame? Don’t blame us. This is a huge monster,” said Hare.
In 2013, OPG said it would not proceed with the project unless it had SON consent. OPG will now have to look at alternate solutions as low and intermediate waste remain in interim storage, says Kuntz.
Those options include near-surface facilities, which he says work better for low-level waste, which can remain radioactive for 300 years to 400 years, but not as good for intermediate waste, which could remain hazardous for thousands of years.
Or an alternate location for a DGR, possibly in northern Ontario, may be considered.
Kuntz would offer no timeline as to when this work would begin or conclude. He says a site selection process needs to be developed first, regulatory approvals are required, then construction and finally an operating license. He points to Sweden and Finland, both of which have DGRs in service, noting their full process took 25 to 30 years.
“It really depends on what it takes to get the political will, the social license, the buy-in from all the necessary communities,” said Kuntz.
There is no meeting date set with SON yet, he says, noting that OPG has immediate work to do now that the DRG at the Bruce nuclear site has fallen through, including dealing with the regulators, the contracts and everyone else involved in the project.
“Right now we all just need a moment to reflect…and just to digest this vote and its meaning and to reflect so that when we do meet again we’re coming into a meeting where everyone is calm and collected and feeling good about respecting the vote and feeling good about moving forward,” said Kuntz.
Hare is adamant that that reflection must include having First Nations at the table at the start of the process.
“OPG will be scrambling … What’s the next step? Well, call us to the table. Call us, all of us. Call all the ones you think could help make a difference. The First Nations, we should be one of them (along with) the federal and provincial governments. Let’s go at the table. Let’s do this from the beginning. Don’t come to me after the fact,” said Hare.
The Bruce nuclear plant was built on SON traditional territory 50 years ago with no input from SON members.