Algonquin leaders and elders argued against a proposed nuclear waste storage facility in Chalk River, Ont., at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s final licensing hearing before deciding whether to allow its construction.

Kebaowek and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nations wanted the hearing to take place in person, but the commission denied their requests. So, they rented an event space a stone’s throw from the commission’s headquarters in Ottawa where people could come together and participate in the hearing as a group.

The event space sits at the junction of the Ottawa, Gatineau and Rideau rivers, a fitting location considering an overarching concern about the proposed radioactive waste disposal site is its potential impact on drinking water for all downstream communities.

More than a hundred Algonquin community members, environmentalists and concerned citizens gathered Thursday in Ottawa to hear final arguments from Kebaowek and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nations and Algonquins of Barriere Lake. Some community members drove nearly five hours to watch the proceedings.

“The duty to consult has still not been fulfilled, and therefore, no consent for this project will be given by the Algonquin nations,” said Lance Hayman, chief of Kebaowek, to a round of raucous applause.

On Aug. 10, 2023, roughly 100 people gathered in the event space to watch Algonquin leaders deliver their final remarks at the CNSC's last hearing on the proposed disposal site for radioactive waste. Photo by Natasha Bulowski

The proposed “near-surface” disposal facility would be one kilometre from the Ottawa River and hold up to a million tonnes of radioactive and hazardous waste in a large mound. The facility will take low-level radioactive waste — for example, contaminated equipment, such as protective shoe covers, clothing, rags and equipment — 90 per cent of which is from Chalk River Laboratories, owned by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, a subsidiary of the Crown corporation Atomic Energy of Canada Limited. The facility would be in Chalk River, a village roughly 180 kilometres northwest of Ottawa. Chalk River Laboratories used to be a major producer of medical isotopes used for cancer diagnostic procedures.

The Algonquin leaders and concerned citizens argue the facility's proximity to the Ottawa River (known as the Kichi Sibi in Algonquin), which supplies water to millions, is a major risk.

“What they're doing is wholly fraudulent,” said Dylan Whiteduck, chief of Kitigan Zibi, during a press conference Thursday. “We don't agree with it.”

Algonquin leaders and elders argued against a proposed nuclear waste storage facility in Chalk River, Ont., at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission’s final licensing hearing before deciding whether to allow its construction.

Last July, the commission decided to “allow more time for engagement and consultation” with Kebaowek and Kitigan Zibi Anishinabeg First Nations. But one year later, the Algonquin leaders and elders say the consultation is still inadequate. Renée Pelletier, legal counsel for Kitigan Zibi and Kebaowek, spelled out why.

“For consultation to be meaningful, it must occur early and … occur without predetermined outcomes,” said Pelletier. Consultation definitely didn’t happen early — the commission first started the environmental assessment process for the facility in 2016.

“There is no question that meaningful consultation in this case started far too late in the process,” she said. “But that didn't necessarily have to mean that this process was doomed.”

However, during the extension, Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission (CNSC) “staff had an extremely narrow view of their consultation obligations” and weren’t interested in any of the cultural or traditional knowledge First Nations had to offer — they just wanted information about what the First Nations’ rights were, said Pelletier.

“To put it bluntly, the information CNSC staff received from the First Nations wasn't going to change anything,” said Pelletier. She said CNSC staff did not seem concerned about any of the gaps that Kebaowek and Kitigan Zibi raised and “did not change a single conclusion in their environmental assessments” or propose any new mitigation measures.

Materials on Canadian Nuclear Laboratories’ website say the proposed facility is located on a bedrock ridge that naturally forces water away from the river and does not pose a risk to the Ottawa River or drinking water.

“The environmental assessment process for the NSDF has included public and Indigenous engagement from the beginning,” reads a written statement from Sandra Fraught, CNL’s regulatory approvals manager for the project.

In his final comments at the hearing Thursday afternoon, Canadian Nuclear Laboratories president and CEO Joe McBrearty said there has been “robust and meaningful” consultation with Indigenous groups.

Pikwakanagan First Nation signed a long-term relationship agreement with Canadian Nuclear Laboratories on June 9.

Deep River, a town in Renfrew County, is home to a nuclear research facility called Chalk River Laboratories, run by Canadian Nuclear Laboratories. This is the proposed location of the disposal facility, and Deep River Mayor Suzanne D’Eon is supportive of the project.

Coun. Justin Roy of Kebaowek First Nation isn’t holding out hope the CNSC will refuse to amend CNL’s licence and allow it to proceed with the facility.

Coun. Justin Roy of Kebaowek First Nation poses for a photo after he gave his final submission to the CNSC on Aug. 10, 2023. Photo by Natasha Bulowski

This is one of many issues where “we just feel like our voices aren't being heard, but we have a duty as Algonquin, as a member of chief and council, to keep pushing these fights so that you hope that they get resolved in a proper way,” Roy told Canada’s National Observer at the event space at 50 Sussex Dr.

“At the end of the day, the things that we spoke to today will be things that can help us if it ever comes to a judicial review or has to go to court or some sort of legal process.”

And legal avenues will indeed be explored if the facility goes forward, leaders agreed at the press conference.

Cleanup costs are another big concern, said Algonquin elder Verna McGregor from Kitigan Zibi. It's common knowledge that when an accident occurs, it is the citizens, the taxpayers, who “carry the burden of the cost of remediation,” she said in her remarks to the commission.

A woman speaks at a table with a microphone, framed by the backs of two peoples heads in the foreground
Algonquin elder Verna McGregor from Kitigan Zibi speaks at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission's final hearing for a proposed nuclear waste storage facility in Chalk River, Ont. The hearing is virtual, but Algonquin community members and allies rented an event space in Ottawa so they could come together and watch leaders give their testimony. Photo by Natasha Bulowski

The virtual hearing was plagued with technical difficulties with language interpretation services. Algonquins of Barriere Lake Chief Casey Ratt had to restart his statement several times and it took at least 20 minutes before the hearing could continue. Many attendees remarked that such technical difficulties wouldn’t exist had the commission agreed to hold the hearing in person.

In the middle of the Algonquins of Barriere Lake presentation, a thunderstorm rocked Ottawa. The speakers continued over the rain pounding on the roof and the rumbling thunder.

Algonquin community members tend to the sacred fire as the thunderstorm rages in Ottawa, Ont. They kept it burning despite the unrelenting rain. Photo by Natasha Bulowski

Outside, a handful of community members braved the storm in order to keep the sacred fire burning.

– With files from Matteo Cimellaro