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Digging deeper into the past

by Sofia Gay January 24, 2012

History may look fairly solid on textbooks and slideshows in lecture rooms, but once in a while there comes along another discovery proving that, much like other disciplines, there is room for change.

Such is the case with Canada’s involvement in the making of the atomic bombs that landed on Japan in 1945. The fact that a mine on Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories provided the uranium to make the bombs was obscured by a lack of documentation and research, leading it to be overlooked in history.

This week, two professors who delved into the subject, Julie Salverson, who teaches at Queen’s University, just finished a book manuscript, and wrote the libretto for a clown opera about the atomic bomb, and Concordia’s own Peter C. van Wyck, who penned The Highway of the Atom, will do a reading as part of the English department’s Writers Read series.

“The Dene of Great Bear Lake never really realized what they were up to in their dealings with the white miners (from 1930-1960),” wrote van Wyck in an email. “[..] It wasn’t until much, much later that the Dene came to realize that the project they had become involved in was killing them, and had culminated in the massacre of over 227,000 Japanese civilians and 30,000 or so Korean labourers […]”

Having encountered the subject after watching Peter Blow’s Village of Widows (which sees the Dene who worked in the mine and along the transportation route suffering from cancer due to unprotected exposure), van Wyck and Salverson began to do research on the subject—at least, as much as possible given the scant documents on the subject.

“After seeing this film, I realized that this was the next thing I needed to do. In a way, it is the Canadian back-story to what is otherwise a kind of proprietorially American story of the bomb,” he said. ”So I started to poke around a bit, to see what there was, to see what the state of the archive was. I quickly came to realize that it was secret! And within a very short time, I was able to see that the hermeneutic circle of citation really began and ended with the work of one scholar, who was hired to write a corporate biography of Eldorado, and had been given access to the company papers. His story didn’t have Indians in it either. Or apologies.”

With a research grant from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council, van Wyck and Salverson traveled to find out more, reaching many places, from Great Bear Lake itself to the deserts of New Mexico.

In the end, van Wyck had material for his book, and Salverson for her book and opera, which will premiere later this year.

“It was almost my first response to this story, that it was so huge it needed to be an opera. And so absurd, it needed to be done through clown. I’d already written a play about land mines for the Canadian Red Cross, and that script was developed through work with Vancouver clown artist Steve Hill of Leaky Heaven Circus,” said Salverson. “[…] I am drawn to the absurd and the comedic as forms for telling huge stories, in particular stories of violence. It is my desire to avoid a kind of sentimentally tragic approach that can awe but also paralyze an audience or a reader […]”

While history may not be up some students’ alleys, van Wyck and Salverson believe this is a story Canadians should be aware of.

“When I visited Japan in 2010 I was very aware that my country had played a role in developing the bomb. I was also aware that it was important to visit Hiroshima and see the vitality and life of the city, not just its tragic past. I feel this way about how Canadians learn this story of Great Bear Lake,” said Salverson. “There is a community of Sahtugot’ine Dene people who are known for their pioneering self-governance and who have undertaken a number of initiatives like land stewardship, community radio. It matters that Canadians know about the richness of this community and others like them. And that there was a uranium mine on Great Bear Lake.”

Canada and the Making of the Atomic Bomb is taking place Jan. 27 at 7:30 p.m. in the York Amphitheatre (EV 1.605).

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