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Documentary examines NWT’s ‘silenced’ World War Two history


A Moral Awakening begins with a shot of a dilapidated dock on the shores of the Great Bear River. It’s one of the few remains of Port Radium, a former mining site located about 265 km east of Délįnę.

It may not look like much today, but the short documentary – available to watch online – details how the site had a profound impact on the Sahtu Dene – and the world.

“It’s a part of our history that we forget, that we’ve silenced in a way,” says Geoff Bird, a war heritage expert and professor with Royal Roads University in Victoria, BC.

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He wrote, directed, and produced A Moral Awakening, and travelled to Délįnę in 2017 while making the film. 

The remains of the dock seen in A Moral Awakening.

According to the Canadian government, beginning in 1933, Port Radium was mined for radium for use in medical research. From the early 1940s to 1960, it was mined for uranium, then silver from the 1960s until 1982. 

The film details how uranium was shipped from the site to Port Hope, Ontario, where it was refined and then sent on to the US. Port Radium provided 11 percent of all the uranium used in the Manhattan Project – American-led work to create and use atomic bombs in World War Two. 

“It’s a universal part of history, you know, the atom bomb, and this thing that could destroy the world essentially, this technology that can destroy the world,” Bird said. 

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Only after the war, he said, did people in Délįnę learn about the connection between Port Radium and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan. A Moral Awakening’s release marks 75 years since the bombings. 

In 1998, Sahtu Dene representatives from Délįnę travelled to Hiroshima to apologize.

They’re still waiting on their own apology from the Canadian government. 

An aerial photo of Port Radium. NWT Archives/EdmontonAir Museum Committee/Collection N-1979-003-0600

Sahtu Dene had been hired to carry cloth sacks of radioactive uranium ore from the Crown-owned Eldorado mine without protective equipment. They weren’t told about the dangers of uranium to human or environmental health until the 1980s. 

Morris Neyelle, an Elder from Délįnę, worked in the mine shaft at Port Radium in 1978. 

“They taught us how to be a miner, to do all the drill work underground … even then they never told us the dangers we were facing,” he said. “My life is at risk. Now I understand, but lucky I am OK, so far.” 

At least 14 Dene people who worked at the mine died of cancer. Many in Délįnę believe the deaths were a result of exposure to uranium. 

An unidentified man with sacks of pitchblende concentrate awaiting shipment at Port Radium in 1939. NWT Archives/Richard Finnie fonds/N-1979-063- 0081

The final report from the Canada-Délįnę Uranium Table, published in 2005, stated government studies were unable to confirm whether the deaths were directly caused by radiation exposure. The report said the small population size and other risk factors meant a conclusion could not be reached.

“I’ve lost my uncles, and my grandfathers, and my grandmothers – all to being exposed to radioactive waste,” Neyelle said. 

“My grandfather died in ’78. He was … a tugboat operator, but he died of bone cancer. He has been exposed to radioactive waste. It’s where it leads to – bone cancer.” 

The federal government completed remediation of Port Radium in 2007 and continues to monitor the site. A 2016 environmental study and site inspection found remediation methods were working as planned.

Morris Neyelle in A Moral Awakening.

Neyelle still has concerns about the site, having listened to scientists explain more about radioactive contamination. He says nobody from the community now goes there. 

Neyelle said an apology from the government would go a long way to help. 

“I always said for our kids and your kids we need to work together to survive in this world,” he said.  “Look at the things that happen out there with Covid-19. We have to come together to make it work. Same thing with uranium.”

Bird said the title for A Moral Awakening comes from comments former US president Barack Obama made when visiting Hiroshima in 2016. He was the first sitting American president to visit the site. 

“The moral awakening for me is this recognition of the power of destruction that humanity holds. And the fact that we have to strive for peace collectively, that having weapons of mass destruction like this doesn’t create a sense of greater peace,” Bird said. 

“I think within our own country, there is an opportunity for our own moral awakening about recognizing the services and sacrifices of the Délįnę.”

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