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This article was published 15/3/2015 (2139 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
A group of First Nations has demanded the removal of northern Manitoba's grand chief over an agreement to fund a study worth more than $300,000 on the risks of storing nuclear waste in the Canadian Shield.
Manitoba adopted nuclear-free status in 1987, ruling out any storage of spent nuclear fuel from commercial or research reactors.
But David Harper, chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), which represents northern First Nations, negotiated a two-year, $312,689 funding agreement this winter with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization (NWMO), a federal body that oversees management of spent nuclear fuel from commercial and research reactors. None of the nine proposed disposal sites being considered by the NWMO is in Manitoba, but at least one -- at Ignace in northwestern Ontario, 460 kilometres east of Winnipeg -- is part of the Nelson River watershed covering territory stretching westward to Alberta.
Swampy Cree Tribal Council chiefs denounced any consideration of a deal, citing a moratorium approved by MKO last year on storing or moving nuclear waste through Cree territory.
"I was shocked to find out that MKO Grand Chief Harper signed an agreement with the Nuclear Waste Management Organization without our knowledge or our consent," council head Nelson Genaille said in a statement issued Thursday.
The council, it said, would take no further part in the activities of the MKO executive "until such time as Grand Chief Harper has been removed from office due to a lack of trust to follow the directions of his member communities."
As chief of the Sapotaweyak Cree Nation, one of seven First Nations within the Swampy Cree Tribal Council (SCTC), Genaille led a protest this winter against Manitoba Hydro's plans to run the Bipole III transmission corridor from northern to southern Manitoba through its land claim.
Harper has defended the nuclear deal, saying similar funding was provided to First Nations in Ontario and Saskatchewan. The agreement, he says, involves strictly a study of the issues, not a commitment to having spent fuel around.
On Thursday, he dismissed any notion of resigning.
"Step down for doing my job? I don't think so," he told the Free Press in a text message. "I'm just abiding by the MKO constitution which states, 'Protect First Nations.' "
The council's statement broke open weeks of brewing opposition to any consideration of a nuclear site, whatever the proximity. Chiefs were privately furious with MKO.
Any threat to pull out of the executive council, which acts on behalf of the full assembly of 30 chiefs, would hardly cripple its activity. But it sends a clear signal its leadership is operating under a cloud.
Opponents say MKO, hit by government cutbacks and funding scandals, is desperate for the money and has paid little heed to the possibility of waste being stored in Manitoba or passing through it.
The SCTC includes the First Nations of Mathias Colomb, Marcel Colomb, Sapotaweyak, Wuskwi Sipihk, Grand Rapids, Mosaskahiken and Chemawawin.
Mathias Colomb Cree Chief Arlen Dumas, who has led protests against mining development in Pukatawagan, northeast of The Pas, said chiefs had "lost all faith" in Harper.
"MKO has absolutely no legal, political or moral authority to act on our behalf in relation to our aboriginal or treaty rights," Dumas said in a statement.
Harper has said the dispute is rooted in a misunderstanding. First Nations, he says, need to be fully informed of the "legitimate threat that a nuclear-waste repository could pose."
The NWMO describes spent nuclear fuel rods as byproducts of nuclear power generation that are "highly radioactive and must be carefully managed for a very long period of time, essentially indefinitely."
It says spent fuel is now stored near reactor sites. After being removed from a reactor, it is first placed in a water-filled pool for seven to 10 years so its heat and radioactivity decrease. Used fuel bundles are later placed in dry-storage containers, silos or vaults. The NWMO was tasked with finding a safe long-term disposal site in one of three locations: deep underground in the Precambrian Shield, at reactor sites or in a centralized site, above or below ground.
It says it wants common ground for discussions among First Nations as it embarks on a laborious examination of the nine sites.
"This is over and above what would be required if there was a (final) project," NWMO spokesman Mike Krizanc said by telephone. "Those communities would have to be consulted as required by legislation. We think it's important that communities that are potentially affected and are interested are provided with the information they want, deserve and need."