While defence minister Bill Graham is busy asserting Canadian sovereignity over tiny Arctic islands, some are wondering why he shows so little respect for the North we already own.
They're talking about abandoned radar antennae standing like massive dinosaur carcasses over fields of leaching PCB barrels that dot native communities in the Timmins-Hudson's Bay area.
In an astounding case of bureaucratic pathology, the feds, along with the province, are sitting on their hands as this junk left over from Canada's Cold War folly continues to poison the terrain.
Native trappers in the region have already been warned about high levels of PCBs in rabbits. But not even a possible link between the leaching waste and rising incidence of cancer seems to shake the feds from their jurisdictional deep sleep.
After repeated requests for Graham to be interviewd by NOW for this story, he backed out and referred all questions on the matter to a spokesperson for the Department of National Defence (DND).
Simply put, "The federal government doesn't give a shit," says Gilles Bisson, NDP MPP for Timmins-James Bay, who has been trying to get responses from both levels of government.
In the 1950s the feds set up this string of radar sites called the Mid Canada Line, 17 of them in Ontario, to provide early warning of a Soviet bomber attack against North America. While the use value of these sites was dubious at the best of times (they became obsolete by the 60s with the rise of intercontinental ballistic missiles), they've left an unintended legacy: rotting electrical equipment, PCBs, diesel fuel, asbestos and heavy metals.
The feds claim the land no longer belongs to the DND but to the province, and have flatly rejected Ontario's recent proposal for both governments to split the cost of the cleanup.
"We weren't involved in any of the property management after 1965," says the DND's Chris Hough, explaining why his department feels no responsibility in the matter. "It is difficult for us to say [the contamination] exists from DND operations.'
That's not what the province says. According to Mike Cartan, regional project manager at the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, research conducted as part of environmental assessments reveals that "the contamination of oil, fuel and PCBs in the soil came from the operational practices" of the DND.
Moreover, Cartan says the feds never officially returned the land to the provincial government. "There was no formal land exchange for all sites. There were only two sites that had formal tenure exchange."
While Hough says the land transfer did indeed happen and met all legal obligations, he does add that "we are still open to discussions because there is a measure of responsibility that [the DND] will take."
So far, that measure of responsibility has been nil.
Only one of the sites, at Fort Albany, has gone through a cleanup. The province desperately tried and failed to get the feds to pay, and then took it on itself. Tests conducted there showed high levels of PCBs in the soil and plant life.
The greatest concern now focuses on the Weenusk First Nations in Peawanuk, where most of the sites are located. Many members it this community near the Winisk River, a sub-Arctic territory of polar bears and beluga whales, are now suffering from cancer.
"Tests are being done by Kingston General Hospital and the regional hospital in Moose Factory [to determine if there is a link]," says Grand Chief Stan Louttit of the Mushkegowuk Council, a group representing First Nation communities coping with the deserted sites.
Environmental groups have also entered the fray because two of the locales fall within the boundaries of Polar Bear Provincial Park. Anna Baggio of the Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society says that although the park is located on the shore of Hudson Bay, "from an ecological perspective, [contamination] matters globally because it connects with the largest intact boreal forest left on the planet."
MPP Bisson says Treaty Nine obligations, which guarantee the hunting and fishing rights of area First Nations, are themselves enough to force action. [The treaty was signed with the Ojibway and Cree in 1905 and covers two-thirds of northern Ontario.]
According to Anastasia Lipner of Sierra Legal Defence, because all 17 radar sites are on land covered by the treaty, "the contaminants that have continued to leach off the sites would be [considered] ongoing harm done to the constitutional protection of treaty rights, and First Nations could take legal action."
This may indeed be the only way to light a fire under the shirking feds. MP Charlie Angus, NDP member for Timmins-James Bay, says Graham's "ducking and bobbing" has been frustrating.
Angus says that when he cornered the minister in the House of Commons to tell him that "people have been waiting 40 years for this cleanup," all Graham had to say was that it's really hard to deal with the issue of liability.
Says Angus. "These are issues the government should be doing studies on. If this was done in Scarborough or Vancouver or Regina, they would have cleaned it up years ago. It's been allowed to happen here because it's out of sight and out of mind."