Sunday, August 14, 2011

Life Is Precious — Don’t Waste It

Paul Miazga
August 11, 2011

Northern residents rally against nuclear waste repository.
Photo Credit: by Emil Bell

Around 4 pm on Aug. 6, school teacher Marius Paul of Beauval is looking for a boot along a busy stretch of Highway 11 south of Rosthern. With a long, feather-ornamented walking staff in his hand and a black cowboy hat on his head, he walks with a quick, steady pace, the late afternoon sun illuminating his deeply lined face and brown eyes. Dressed in a faded muscle shirt, blue jeans and tinted glasses, Paul may not exactly fit the stereotype of an eco-warrior — but that’s what he is.

Far from home, the 59-year-old Paul has been walking for ten days already, fighting through painful blisters and sore feet to deliver an important message about nuclear waste to both the provincial legislature and the people of Saskatchewan. His beliefs on uranium mining, nuclear waste and nuclear waste disposal, developed over a lifetime, have kept him going this long and will carry him further still. But first he needs to find that boot.

“The boot marks ten kilometres since I started walking today. When I find it, someone else will take their turn and carry on with the walk,” he says. Paul will probably walk twenty clicks by day’s end on this, day 11 of a 22-day, 820-km journey to the provincial legislature in Regina undertaken by First Nations, Métis and local community leaders from Beauval, Pinehouse Lake, English River, Patunak and beyond. None of them want nuclear waste anywhere in Saskatchewan.

That message, which Paul is spending nearly half of his summer vacation to deliver, has led him to gather signatures and support for the 7,000 Generations Walk Against Nuclear Waste, which started July 27 in Pinehouse Lake. The Nuclear Waste Management Organization of Canada (NWMO) has zeroed in on communities in northern Saskatchewan such as Pinehouse Lake as a possible new home for millions of bundles of spent nuclear fuel from Ontario, Québec and New Brunswick. Millions — perhaps even billions — of dollars in economic development money could be at stake, but so is the health of thousands of northern residents, not to mention the safety and viability of the province’s pristine lands, waterways and all they represent.

Paul still speaks his native Dene language, despite having grown up in the province’s much-tarnished residential schools. From 1959 (at the age of seven) until 1968, he was forced into a system that conditioned him and other First Nations people to accept the government’s suzerainty, or what he calls the “conquest ideology”: centralized authority, a life restricted to that of the reserve and the elimination of traditional culture, which entails a holistic sense of life and the balance of nature in all things. Even the notion of respecting one’s elders was undermined, he says.

Back in Beauval, Paul and his wife Candyce have for years run a school they started for youth who have “fallen through the cracks.” He acts as a role model for his students, trying to instil in them a sense of identity, community and self-respect — things no amount of money can buy.

The proponents of nuclear waste storage, meanwhile, are all about money — and this may already be corrupting tribal elders and community leaders across the province. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations has received $1 million from NWMO, and the Métis Nation - Saskatchewan $435,000, the money supposedly meant to help defer the costs incurred by northern communities during public consultations held to discuss the matter. Some northern leaders have come out in favour of a nuclear waste dump but most are sitting on the fence, afraid to speak out because of what it might mean to oppose it.

“The whole idea is that the world is left holding the bag with respect to toxic waste,” says Paul. If just one spill occurs, the next 7,000 generations of humanity would be affected — hence the walking group’s name. An artist and university graduate with three degrees, Paul knows that no technology yet exists to safely contain spent nuclear fuel. One such fuel, Uranium-238, has a half-life (the amount of time it takes for half of the original radioactive material to dissipate) of 4.47 billion years.

“We fought against the uranium mines back in the 1970s. In the ‘80s we tried to make truckers aware they were carrying yellowcake uranium,” Paul says. He tries to keep abreast of everything that is going on, to educate himself about the dangers of this “shit”, as he calls it.

The walk support team catches up with Paul around 6 pm, just as he comes across a rubber boot with an orange stripe set among some tall weeds at the roadside. He can rest for a while, now — but he has many kilometres yet to go and many more people to educate ahead of the group’s expected arrival in Regina on Aug. 15.

“What I speak comes from my world view,” he says. “I don’t think the public is aware of what’s really going on here. This is a life and death issue.”

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