The Pikwakanagan powwow returns this weekend for the first time since the pandemic began, but with it comes controversy over event sponsorships.

The Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO) and Canadian Nuclear Laboratories (CNL) are among the sponsors of the powwow, causing some consternation within Pikwakanagan First Nation, located two hours northwest of Ottawa, and other nearby Algonquin communities.

Both agencies are involved in nuclear waste storage and disposal projects, and two separate nuclear waste proposals remain contentious among many First Nations whose territories the projects may affect.

NWMO is currently in a dispute over a proposed nuclear waste site with Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN), an organization representing 49 First Nations in northern Ontario.

The non-profit, founded by Canada’s nuclear electricity producers, is proposing a “deep geological repository” in northern Ontario that would see one to two truckloads of nuclear waste transported across the region a day once it is in full operation.

“Here we are, as the Algonquins of Pikwakanagan, cosying up and giving social licence to a corporation that is running roughshod with our [Anishinaabe] kin up in northwestern Ontario,” Veldon Coburn, University of Ottawa professor and Pikwakanagan community member, said in reference to Nuclear Waste Management’s northern Ontario site.

On Aug. 10, NAN chiefs passed a resolution to “vehemently oppose” the project, including through possible protest and legal action.

Pikwakanagan is not a NAN member, but some people, including Coburn, oppose the project in solidarity with communities in Treaty 3 and Treaty 9 territory.

Pikwakanagan should think twice before blindly taking money from corporations in dispute with First Nations, Coburn says.

“It’s lobbying. They are trying to gain some social licensing among Indigenous Peoples to get some legitimacy,” he says.

Criticism of the sponsorships relates to two proposed nuclear waste sites — one for northern Ontario in Treaty 9 territory, the other in Chalk River on unceded Algonquin territory.

NWMO’s website has a page dedicated to the organization's reconciliation policy, which purports to support First Nations, despite a 10-year resistance to its northern Ontario nuclear waste proposal, Coburn continues.

Veldon Coburn is an assistant professor at the Institute of Indigenous Research and Studies. Photo courtesy of Veldon Coburn

CNL, on the other hand, is directly involved in a proposed “near surface” disposal facility a kilometre from the Ottawa River in Chalk River.

The facility will hold up to a million tonnes of radioactive and hazardous waste in a large mound if it goes through.

There have been two nuclear accidents at the Chalk River site. Both occurred in the 1950s.

CNL is contracted by Atomic Energy of Canada Limited, a Crown corporation, to manage and operate its sites and facilities, including “Canada’s radioactive waste and decomissioning responsibilities,” according to its website.

The project is opposed by many Algonquin First Nations, including Kebaowek First Nation, Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg, Wolf Lake First Nation and Mitchikanibikok Inik, Algonquins of Barriere Lake (ABL).

Pikwakanagan is also opposed to the project as it currently stands.

The nation’s leadership told a government hearing they are not ready to give their free, prior and informed consent to the project due to “uncertainties and a lack of evidence of adequate mitigation.”

But at Pikwakanagan, all sponsorships for the powwow are received and organized by the traditional powwow committee, which is run by community volunteers.

Algonquin of the Pikwakanagan leadership cannot speak for the traditional powwow committee, Chief Wendy Jocko told Canada’s National Observer in a written statement.

The committee is relying solely on donations to cover costs, she says.

“This is a time of celebration. Without any donations, there would be no powwow. [Algonquins of Pikwakanagan First Nation] extends our appreciation to all who donated and to the traditional powwow committee for bringing us together again,” Chief Jocko says.

Coburn understands that funds for community events are sometimes needed or welcomed, but sponsors should be considered for their record on Indigenous rights.

“It’s incumbent upon us, if we are going to partner with corporations, to partner with those who show integrity and don’t step on the rights of other Indigenous Peoples.”

Elder Claudette Commanda, a Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg member who opposes the Chalk River proposal, told Canada’s National Observer Algonquins must be heard around the proposed nuclear waste site.

“There will be no nuclear waste facilities in our territories or our waters,” Commanda says. “We have to protect our waters, and it’s not just a concern for First Nations people. It’s a concern for all Canadians.

“Protect the water because water is life.”

— With files from Natasha Bulowski

Matteo Cimellaro / Local Journalism Initiative / Canada’s National Observer