Indigenous people in the shadow of one of the world's largest nuclear reactors are adamant their values will underpin their decision on whether to approve a proposed multibillion-dollar storage bunker for radioactive waste — a process that could take at least another year to play out.
Armed with commitments from both the Canadian government and proponents of the Deep Geologic Repository to await their buy-in, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation say they will take their time to reach an informed opinion on a project already more than a decade in the planning.
"Our values and who we are as a people and our connection to the lands and the waters are in many ways more important than the technical aspects of this," Randall Kahgee, a former chief and now lead adviser to the First Nations on nuclear issues, said in an interview.
"This is not just a simple project. This is a forever project. It requires our people to think beyond seven generations, which is typically how we plan and think about these things."
The Ontario Power Generation project, currently estimated to cost $2.4 billion, would see a bunker built at the Bruce nuclear power plant near Kincardine, Ont., close to the Lake Huron shoreline. Hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of low and intermediate radioactive waste — now stored at the site above ground — would be buried 680 metres deep.
The Saugeen Ojibway Nation comprises about 5,000 members of the Saugeen First Nation and the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, many of whom live elsewhere. They have long complained about being shut out of decisions related to the power plant.
"We were never part of shaping those decisions," Kahgee said. "We certainly have not benefited in the same way that others have. It's the kind of classic example we see historically, where our people are often left on the outside looking in on their own territory while others reap the benefits."
The waste storage plan, pushed by OPG as perfectly safe but opposed by politicians and scores of communities in Canada and the United States as an eco disaster in the making, won tentative approval from an environmental review panel in May 2015. Since then, both the previous Conservative and current Liberal governments have repeatedly delayed making the politically fraught final decision.
Most recently, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna asked the giant utility in late August to come back yet again with more information — this time on how the project might affect area First Nations.
"OPG continues to be engaged in respectful dialogue with SON, as it has been since 2004, and is seeking further information on those effects as well as the timeline for the SON community process," said Neal Kelly, with Ontario Power Generation. "Once OPG has that information, we will submit the updated analysis to the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency."
Steps toward a consensus among affected First Nations are underway. Members turned out to a conference over four days in September and October that Kahgee dubbed "Nuclear 101." The aim was to explain nuclear power basics: radiation, levels of waste toxicity, and the issues around how best to store the waste that remains dangerous for centuries. People, he said, have to understand enough to ask the right questions and hold a good dialogue.
"Your no has to be just as informed as your yes," he said.
Various community sessions are being planned for 2018 but what's critical, Kahgee said, is to come up with a robust consultation process that ultimately reflects the native voice.
"This is an historic moment in this country," he said. "We are probably one of maybe one or two Indigenous communities in the world doing work on consent. It's a tremendous burden, but it's also a tremendous opportunity."
Not lost on the Saugeen peoples in the ongoing discussion is the reality of the nearby power plant, a major employer in the area critical to Ontario's electricity needs, and the hazardous waste stored on site for years.
"It's not going away, it's there, and if we take seriously our role as stewards of the land, implicit is the responsibility of stewardship to act," Kahgee said. "These are complex issues that will take time for our people to address. If this was simply about money or beads and trinkets, that conversation would have happened long ago."