Somba Ke: The Money Place
by Macdonald Stainsby
film review originally written for MRZine, 03/12/06
Not many discuss contemporary geopolitics in a way that brings together both the Manhattan Project of the 1940s and today’s global Risk-like die rolls for energy resources, but the producers of the documentary Somba Ke: The Money Place have made a film that does precisely that.
In the time of World War II, the A-bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was given moral justification thus: if it saves the life of even one American soldier, it’s worth it. The racist climate created through vile propaganda, forced segregation, and internment camps for people of Japanese ancestry across Canada and the United States made the slippery slope slide all the way down to the use of “the bomb.” That much is common knowledge.
What is not widely known is that Fat Man and Little Boy could not have melted sections of Japan if Canada had not poisoned swaths of Denendeh first, at the start of what was to become known as the “Highway of the Atom” just south of the Arctic Circle on Great Bear Lake. While this hitherto little known story slowly gets broken in the South, the mining corporation Alberta Star has received permits to re-open the uranium mine — at the very location that many Dene and non-Dene alike remain convinced led to their community of Déline becoming known as “The Village of Widows” and to high cancer rates among all workers. Today the company’s homepage boasts: “Alberta Star owns 100% of the Eldorado and Contact Lake Iron Oxide, Copper, Gold, Silver, Cobalt, REE and Uranium Project located in Canada’s Northwest Territories.”1 The film shows us how we got from the first A-bombs and their near-genocidal effects on Dene to where we are today, perhaps re-opening the same mine.
The documentary film, written, directed. and produced by a team consisting of Linda Henningson, Petr Cizek, and David Henningson, first lays out the economic reasons this is all coming to the fore now. They start with a brief overview of the global energy crunch soon to come. This reality takes us to a surprising clip of former Greenpeace higher-up Patrick Moore suggesting his belief (much disputed) that only nuclear energy can tackle the deficit soon to be left by fossil fuels (perhaps a weakness in the film is its implicit assumption that consumptions patterns must be maintained and hence its failure to effectively challenge beliefs like Moore’s). Corporations such as Alberta Star deem themselves to be the ones who are to lead this “new” charge, at least in terms of providing uranium ore — much of which will be bought by Japan and China as they too lurch towards a nuclear answer to the energy question.
The Sahtu Dene who live in the community of Déline, the only community along the shores of the Great Bear Lake, went across the water to Port Radium to help out at the mine and eke out a few extra dollars through trade and labour. Along with some non-Dene from the South, Dene worked as transport workers on the Highway of the Atom, all the while being exposed to the dust of uranium particles headed to Manhattan before landing on Japan. The experience of the community of Déline is outlined and punctuated by the testimony of elders from Déline, as they describe the deaths of worker after worker from cancer — in a community so far from the “centre” of North America that almost no tobacco ever made it to Déline at the time of the Highway of the Atom. Despite this, the Federal Government of Canada lists cigarettes as responsible for the high cancer rate among former transport workers (including non-Dene) and claims that there is “no conclusive proof” of radiation exposure causing sickness and death.
The same story with different geographical coordinates is told by the Navajo Nation inside American-held territory. The film shows the history of the Navajo struggle for justice after the mine on their land closed. The uranium mine there caused pollution and cancer and other diseases before closure, and the American government eventually paid out compensation money and assumed responsibility. Canada has done neither for Déline. The film includes interviews with members of the Navajo people and a discussion of their visit to Déline in 1990, a visit that culminated a grassroots coalition called the Déline Uranium Committee.
The committee managed to force Ottawa to promise an investigation in 1998. Yet over the next few years the price of uranium climbed, and band council negotiators from Déline suddenly rejected an independent assessment of health effects using blood analysis and instead hired engineers and mining consultants to do a “health study.” In 1999, the Federal Government set up a “Déline Uranium Team.” The team claimed to exonerate the mine and therefore the government of Canada for any health defects from the Eldorado Mine upon release of a report in September 2005.
The film ends with people disputing the claims in the report, presenting evidence of manipulation of data concerning the culpability of the mine. With the price of uranium continuing to rise as reserves of oil dwindle, those who stand to benefit in the short term — band councils, corporations, and governments — cooperate to someday re-open the Eldo. A few final remarks on the Federal Government of Canada buying silence on uranium mining later, we learn that the Federal Government is scheduled to begin “clean-up” at the mine in the Summer of 2007, for the benefit of Alberta Star.
We urgently need to discuss the politics of the environment, human and national rights, and alternative power sources on an energy-starved planet. This documentary also examines the implications of the current energy “strategy” abroad, which has put 180,000 American troops in Iraq and tens of thousands of American, Canadian, British, and other occupation forces in nation after nation. The goals of foreign policy are no different from those of domestic energy policy: maintain current energy consumption levels. That this documentary illustrates the costs of the “other” side of oil and industrial growth makes it a very timely and informative viewing.
Macdonald Stainsby is writer, social justice activist, student, amateur journalist, and professional hitchhiker looking for a ride to the better world. He is based currently in Vancouver and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.