[ RadSafe ] RE: A Review of the Video "Village of Widows"

Slotemaker, C J (Cal) C_J_Cal_Slotemaker at RL.gov
Wed Feb 22 16:45:50 CST 2006

I forwarded the article from CNS bulletin, Vol 26, No. 4 p. 45 regarding the "Village of Widows" video to Western Washington University, expressing my concern that my alma mater was misrepresenting history.  I received the response below.

Cal Slotemaker


Date: Mon, 09 Jan 2006 15:55:15 -0800
From: The Wilsons <pnwnatives at gmail.com>
Subject: Re: [ RadSafe ] A Review of the Video "Village of Widows"
To: "Franta, Jaroslav" <frantaj at aecl.ca>
Cc: "Multiple \(E-mail\)" <cdn-nucl-l at mailman1.cis.mcmaster.ca>,  "ANS
      listserv \(E-mail\)" <mbrexchange at list.ans.org>,      "Radsafe \(E-mail\)"      <radsafe at radlab.nl>
Message-ID: <43C2F7E3.7080503 at gmail.com>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=ISO-8859-1; format=flowed
Franta, Jaroslav wrote:

>Here's how we do antinuke propaganda in Canada (and export it to the US
>(article reproduced here with the permission of the author)
> Jaro
>A Review of the Video "Village of Widows" 
>A lesson of how much more powerful emotions can be than facts by Walter 
>Keyes CNS Bulletin, Vol. 26, No. 4 p.45 
> http://www.cns-snc.ca/Bulletin/bulletin.html
Dear Mr. Slotemaker:

Ms. Schoenfeld passed your letter of January 12 to me.  My delay in responding is due to our efforts to fully research the claim that "Western is misrepresenting history in the lesson plans for the K-12 Study Canada Series."  I am attaching a letter from Nadine Fabbi, the person who developed the lesson plan in question.  I believe her response should clarify the concerns that you raised.  You will also note that our site will henceforth contain additional information that adds context, recent findings and greater perspective on this very important issue.

I thank you for bringing this matter to our attention.  

Best regards, 

Don Alper

Professor Donald Alper, Director
Center for Canadian-American Studies
Western Washington University
Bellingham, WA 

21 February 2006

Dear Dr. Alper,
Thank you for bringing Mr. Cal Slotemaker's email about our K-12 STUDY CANADA program to my attention. According to your forwarded email, Mr. Slotemaker is concerned that our joint Western Washington and University of Washington program is both misrepresenting history and promoting anti-nuclear propaganda because a particular video, Village of Widows, is part of our collection. If I read the email correctly, Mr. Slotemaker read a commentary on Village of Widows by Mr. Walter Keyes (member of the Saskatchewan branch of the Canadian Nuclear Society) that appeared in the December 2005 issue of Canadian Nuclear Society Bulletin. I first want to thank Mr. Slotemaker for bringing this commentary to our attention and hope that I might address some of his concerns.

As you know, Village of Widows, directed by Peter Blow, tells the story of the making of the first atomic bomb - a joint Canada-U.S. effort. My module (and the film) describes how Canada and the U.S. worked closely together on this effort (Canada provided the needed uranium, processed the ore into fuel bundles at Port Hope, Ontario and the U.S. processed the fuel bundles into plutonium at Hanford "B"). These are fairly straightforward facts available on the Canadian Nuclear Society webpage as well as a host of other sites - no where I have found these basic facts of history to be challenged or to promote anti-nuclear propaganda. This is part of our shared history that few know about and thus the effort to make this history known via our educational materials. The module I produced is not biased - it simply relays the facts and provides further information from organizations that are both pro and con nuclear energy.

Since my module was written in 2003 and the film produced (1999), the final report on the impact of the uranium mine at Port Radium on the Dene and surrounding environment was completed. The Canada-Déline Uranium Table Final Report, "Concerning Health and Environmental Issues Related to the Port Radium Mine" was released this last August 2005. Indeed, aspects of the report will need to be added to the educational essay as the 25 studies conducted over a 5-year period have added much to our understanding of the impact of the mine on the community. Unfortunately, Mr. Keyes has taken sections out of the report and either presented them incorrectly or out of context causing his readers, and concerned citizens such as Mr. Slotemaker, to question the credibility of our educational materials.

First, Mr. Keyes says that the Report finds that the largest health threat to the community was created by "scary news reports and fictional events like those contained in Blow's video." The Report says no such thing. It wasn't news reports and the video that created intense anxiety in the community (in fact, the Dene were the primary contributors to these reports and the video), it was the high incidence of cancer and new knowledge of the link between exposure to radioactive materials and illness that concerned the community. As the report notes, these were very real and valid concerns. Since the 1962 report by the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation, there has been increased understanding of the potential health risks associated with exposure to radioactive material and therefore, increased concerns and efforts at site remediation on the parts of our governments and involved citizens. Anxiety about the human health and environmental impacts of Port Radium have had a significant impact on the community of Déline affecting the "people's sense of harmony with nature, which is a crucial component of their cultural identity" (Report, pg. v). "For many years, the people of Déline did not receive appropriate information about the potential risks of their exposure ... which compounded the anxiety experienced by the community members" (pg. vii). The Report acknowledges the very real impact that a lack of information - not fiction - caused the community.

Second, Mr. Keyes states that no Dene ever worked at the mine site, "not one in 28 years." He uses this statement to convince his audience that the film and my module misrepresent history. What he does not say is that while the Dene were not employed directly by the mine, 35 Dene were hired as ore transporters for the Northern Transportation Route (the 2,200 kilometer water route that transported the uranium from Great Bear Lake to rail delivery in northern Alberta). These men spent anywhere from 1-27 years in close and unprotected contact with the radioactive uranium. Thus, the community had valid reason for concern when half of those transporters suffered or died from cancer by the 1980s and 90s.
Third, Mr. Keyes incompletely sums up the Report findings stating that the environment and individual health were "hardly affected" by the mine. The Report does say that the high incidence of cancer are not outside the "norm" (Report quotes) given the exposure and rates in the Northwest Territories, "however, researchers acknowledged that these statistics should be interpreted cautiously [my italics] because of gaps in the cancer registry prior to 1990 and the small numbers of people in both Déline and the NWT" (pg. 42). So while no direct correlation can be drawn between the close contact with the uranium ore and the high incidence of cancer, neither can the impact be disproved. "It is not possible to know for certain if the death or illness of any individual ore carrier was directly caused by radiation exposure. However, studies predicted that some ore transport workers had a higher cancer risk due to their exposure to radioactive ore" (pg. 89).
In addition, the 107-page report does not simply conclude that there was no impact on human or environmental health, as Keyes suggests. Findings indicate that "the site has had, and continues to have impacts on the water quality on the mine site and in Great Bear Lake adjacent to the site ... the closer the sample was taken to the shore, the higher the metal concentrations" (pg. 80) including that "arsenic was identified as a potential issue for three of the terrestrial biota (fox, scaup, duck and hare)" (pg. 81). Recommendations include, " ... environmental restoration of the Port Radium mine site and the sites along the Northern Transportation Route ... undertaken as soon as possible" (pg. 50) and that "the Port Radium site ... be remediated as soon as possible" (pg. 82). Clearly the report establishes connections between human and environmental health and Port Radium.
Finally, Mr. Keyes charges director Peter Blow of employing emotion and using staged scenes in Village of Widows. Perhaps, but this is not outside the realm of filmmaking. For example, many videos depicting World War I and II use bathtubs and plastic boats but this does not make them any less valid or misleading in conveying history. We have over 400 videos in our collection including a "lively" reproduction of the War of 1812 (with much staged footage), a "proud" film on the story behind the construction of the Avro Aircraft, a film "depicting the bravery" of the 50,000 Canadian airmen involved in the campaign to bomb Germany and a film entitled, Canadians and the Second World War that "capture the emotion of this tumultuous time" - to mention just a few. Each (as is apparent by the descriptors used) employs emotion and has a particular perspective on an historic event. Yet, these videos are hardly inappropriate for educational use. The responsibility of the educator is to point out that any film has a point of view and that students must be trained to view film/print/website content critically.

Mr. Keyes must remember that Peter Blow's film was made well before the Report was released and therefore depicts the assumptions at that time. This, in itself, is educational as it very accurately illustrates the intense anxiety of a community that is not informed about environmental hazards. That the Dene transported uranium, that they found out about the dangers later, that there are many widows left as a result of the transporters becoming ill with cancer, that they prepared a document of concern to the federal government, that they made a pilgrimage to Japan to apologize for their role in the creation of the atomic bomb - this is all true. The film was never meant to portray all sides of the issue - it was made at the request of the Dene and to tell the story of their concerns, anxieties and the injustice they experienced as a result. The film is accurate given the limited information at the time and lack of a full study of the issues. As with many of the videos in our collection, history changes, new information is made available, and more dated films depict earlier histories. 

Certainly, I will make this clear in the module outlining this history - that the video depicts the concerns and assumptions of the Dene prior to the 2005 Report. However, it should also be noted that the video is secondary material for the module - the module is not based on the video as Mr. Keyes' incorrectly assumes. The video is not used as the basis for history in the module but is referred to as one of many additional courses as it the Atomic Energy of Canada website included specifically "to provide students with a view of positive aspects of nuclear energy."

I want to thank Mr. Slotemaker for bringing Mr. Keyes' commentary to our attention. Please assure him that the module will be updated to include the findings and recommendations of the Canada-Déline Uranium Table Report including a direct link to the complete report which will hopefully alleviate future assumptions about the findings/recommendations. I hope this effort leads to more clarity surrounding the issue and that we might continue to provide educators and students with the many fascinating stories and histories that link our two nations. Some of these histories, such as the role of the Dene in the creation of the first atomic bomb, may be more controversial and inspire more dialogue, but these events too have shaped our nations and communities and should remain a part of our curriculum.


Nadine Fabbi, Associate Director
Canadian Studies Center
Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies
University of Washington
Seattle, WA 98195

cc: 	Daniel Hart, Chair, Canadian Studies Center
	Anand Yang, Director, Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies

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