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Ottawa seeks info on nuclear-waste bunker's impact on First Nations

A warning sign outside of the nuclear reactor at the Atomic Energy Canada Limited plant in Chalk River, Ontario, on December 19, 2007.

FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

Further information on how a proposed nuclear-waste bunker near Lake Huron might affect area First Nations peoples is needed before the government decides whether to approve the project, federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said Monday.

In a letter to Ontario Power Generation, McKenna said the updated information will be taken into account as she mulls the fate of the much-delayed mega-project.

"I request that Ontario Power Generation update its cumulative-effects analysis of the potential cumulative effects of the project on physical and cultural heritage," McKenna said in her letter.

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"The update must include a clear description of the potential cumulative effects of the project on Saugeen Ojibway Nation's cultural heritage, including a description of the potential effects of the project on the nation's spiritual and cultural connection to the land."

A month ago, the Saugeen Ojibway Nation, whose traditional territory includes the proposed disposal site, wrote McKenna to say the project should not proceed without its support. It called for government assurance that the nation's views would be taken into consideration before making any approval decision.

"Members of the SON communities are becoming better acquainted with nuclear-waste issues in order to be able to make a well-informed decision on whether they can support the DGR Project," said the letter signed by Greg Nadjiwon, chief of the Chippewas of Nawash Unceded First Nation, and Chief Lester Anoquot of Saugeen First Nation.

"Our view is that the outcome of this community process and, ultimately, the decision of the communities will be necessary information for you to have prior to your decision respecting the environmental assessment."

In calling on OPG to update its impact analysis, McKenna applauded the utility's previous commitment that it would not proceed with the contentious multibillion-dollar deep geologic repository without support from the area's Indigenous people.

She called the promise an example of "how reconciliation practices can be implemented on the ground" and urged OPG to continue working collaboratively with the First Nations community.

In June, federal environmental authorities said OPG had provided further information on alternative sites for burying tonnes of radioactive waste, and they would begin drafting a report to McKenna, who has final say over the repository and what conditions might be attached to any approval. It was not immediately clear how her latest request for information would affect the Canadian Environmental Assessment Agency's plans to complete the draft this summer.

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"The government of Canada believes Indigenous peoples have the right to participate in decision making in matters that affect their rights, and that Indigenous governments, laws and jurisdictions must be respected," McKenna said in her letter to OPG.

"I will make a decision based on science and traditional knowledge ... including the views of Indigenous Peoples, the public and other stakeholders."

OPG, which insists the proposal is safe and the best long-term storage option, said Monday it was reviewing McKenna's new request.

"OPG has been engaged in respectful, ongoing dialogue with SON and that will continue," the utility said in a statement.

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