Service and sacrifice: Film commemorates legacy of Délįnę and atom bomb

July 13, 2020
The remains of the dock at Port Radium near Great Bear Lake, NWT, where uranium was mined for the Manhatten Project.

Seventy-five years after atomic weapons were first unleashed, war heritage expert Prof. Geoffrey Bird  is releasing a short documentary that remembers the service and sacrifice of the people of Délįnę, who carried uranium ore used in the atomic bombs dropped during the Second World War. 

A Moral Awakening launches Wednesday, July 15 in a virtual exhibit hosted by the Royal Roads University Library. The project was inspired and endorsed by the Délįnę Got’įnę Government and funded by the Government of Canada.

Bird says part of that moral awakening for Canadians is to acknowledge the service and sacrifice made by the people of Délįnę.

“The film calls for a moral awakening, a call to action to overcome the shadow of destruction and injustice that we humans so readily bring upon ourselves, on others, and our planet,” Bird says.

Seventy-five years ago on July 16, the atom bomb was tested in New Mexico, setting in motion its use on Japan a few weeks later.  

Many people from Délįnę carried uranium ore as workers at Port Radium, a mining town on the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories. The mine supplied about 11% of the uranium used in the Manhattan Project. Refined in Port Hope, Ontario, it was then used in the atom bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan in August 1945. 

The voices and experiences of community leaders and Elders in Délįnę are central to the film.  The community was directly and deeply affected by their work at Port Radium.

“Our people were never told about the dangers of being exposed to uranium,” says Danny Gaudet, chair of the Canada/Déline Uranium Table and chief negotiator for the Délįnę Got’įnę self-government agreement. “There are letters on file that the federal government knew back then that opening Port Radium was a huge health risk to anybody that operated or worked there.”

Elder Alfred Taniton, who worked in the mine in the 1950s and 60s, says not only was the mine hard on people’s health, it was hard on their hearts.

“The poison they took out they made a powerful weapon out of it, so they dropped it on another country, and the people from that country also suffered by it,” he says in the film. “We think about that. It came from our land to be used to make other people suffer.”

The film’s title was inspired by former American president Barack Obama’s words in May 2016 during a visit to Hiroshima. He described a future in which “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are known not as the dawn of atomic warfare, but as the start of our own moral awakening”.

 “I hope our moral awakening leads to government discussions, Délįnę Got’įnę Government and the Government to Canada, as to how this difficult past can be reconciled,” Bird says.

“I am inspired by the people of Délįnę. This story is about the strength, courage and perseverance of a culture and a community, universal messages that are particularly relevant today.”