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GREAT BEAR LAKE

Sad drumbeats in the wilderness

by C.W. Nicol

I made several visits to the Aichi Expo this year and met a lot of interesting people. But one person above all left an indelible impression. Soft-spoken, modest, and wearing traditional northern buckskin, his name was Michael Cazon — a Dene drummer, teacher and healer from Fort Simpson in the Northwest Territories of Canada. The occasion was a reception at the Canadian Pavilion, hosted by the government of the Northwest Territories and a company that arranges tours to Yellowknife and beyond in order to view the aurora and other wonders of the High North.

The drumming of the Dene and Inuit peoples of the Canadian North is simple compared to the complicated rhythms of the taiko drums of Japan, or even the foot-tapping beat of the Irish bhodran. Northern drumming is heartbeat drumming used to accompany songs, dances and prayers. Michael’s drum song was so powerful that he had to move away from the microphone set up for other singers, players and speakers. His was not the lusty bellowing of an opera singer; it had far more strength than that. It wasn’t piercing, but it reached right into you. For me, Michael’s drum song went straight to the soul.

Afterward, I was one of the people asked to speak briefly, and I talked about Great Bear Lake, the largest lake entirely within Canada’s borders, which covers 31,328 sq. km (Japan’s largest lake, Biwa, is 670 sq. km) and is bigger than Lake Ontario or Lake Erie.

In 1963, I was in Japan on a tourist visa. To change the visa, I had to leave the country (how many of you, Dear Readers, have gone through that?), and as luck would have it, I was offered a summer job with the Fisheries Research Board of Canada — to help with a survey of Great Bear Lake.

Deep-water sampling

The scientific leader of the survey was Dr. Lionel Johnson, an ex-Royal Navy man working for the Arctic Biological Station, Montreal. For the survey, he chartered the Motor Vessel Radium Gilbert. The M.V. Radium Gilbert offered shipboard accommodations, laboratory space, a stable platform for deep-water sampling, and a very comfortable means of getting around the lake’s huge area.

Great Bear Lake sits between taiga and tundra, and it is spectacularly beautiful. I recall that we recorded water clarity (with a black-and-white metal disk lowered on a marked line) down to depths of more than 40 meters. The lake is famous for huge freshwater lake trout and pike. I myself hooked a 19-kg trout on a lure, and we got far bigger ones in our nets.

The M.V. Radium Gilbert sailed out of Port Radium, on the eastern arm of the lake. This had been our port of entry into the lake, by float plane. When not aboard ship we could use some of the mine buildings, which were then still in excellent shape. It was there that I learned that the mines of Port Radium had been a source of the uranium that was used to make the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and that men from the small Dene village of Fort Franklin (now known by the native name of Deline) had been used to work the mines and transport the uranium ore.

Back then, the M.V. Radium Gilbert towed ore-laden barges across the lake to where Great Bear River flows out, close to the village of Deline, to join the mighty Mackenzie River. The Dene workers in particular had no protection and little understanding, if any, of the dangers of the rocks, wrapped in simple burlap sacks, that they were manhandling and hauling about.

If you look at modern maps produced by the government of the Northwest Territories, you won’t find any place called Port Radium, although it is marked on the latest big “Times Atlas.” I don’t like to say that the suffering — cancer, leukemia and so on — of those Dene workers and their families has been covered up by the government, but it sure as hell looked that way for a long time. It was through the courage, and the songs and dances of the Dene themselves, that the Port Radium tragedy and its global implications came to light.

I was 23 then and had married a Japanese girl just before leaving for Great Bear Lake. I knew that Japan would be important in my life.

One evening, I was sitting on a hill above the white-painted buildings of the mine, the natural harbor of Port Radium lying below me. Looking down through clear crystal waters I could see the shadowy forms of submerged rocks and the shape of a sunken barge. The sun reflected in a golden glare off the wide expanse of water beyond the harbor, and further away still were the gentle hues of more distant hills — golden, blue, green, purple. There were thousands of ripe, red, wild raspberries growing all around. A solitary gull was hanging in the flame of the setting sun, and a raven flew over the buildings, its cry echoing from rocky cliffs. The thought came to me — wouldn’t it be a fine thing to have a monument here, in memory and tribute to all those who suffered from atomic bombs — the Dene, the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki . . . everybody!

When I got back to Japan, I tried to promote that theme with the Asahi Shimbun. They sent a reporter over to our house, but he wrote nothing about uranium, bombs nor Dene — only of a strange young foreigner living in Japan who’d been on Arctic expeditions and studied karate. No interest in the real theme at all.

More recently, I and my young friend and former student Satoru Kikuchi (who has researched the topic thoroughly and lived with the Dene), tried hard to get Japanese television stations interested in doing a documentary on Great Bear Lake, its history, biology, native culture — and those dark links to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. No interest whatsoever.

Terrible disappointment

I guess they will go on rehashing the Japanese and American military side of the story, over and over and over again. But the fact that the terrible force that gave birth to those atomic suns came from the beautiful wilderness of northern Canada — and that Dene folk suffered, too — seems not to matter at all to the Japanese media. I am used to it by now, but young Kikuchi and his wife, Masako, were terribly disappointed.

After I gave my little talk last summer at the Canadian Pavilion reception — in which I mentioned this dream of a monument on a hill above Port Radium — several northern leaders came to say that they would support the idea. Then Michael Cazon came and spoke to me, saying that he, too, thought a monument would be a symbol for peace and understanding. Then he told me that the incredibly moving and powerful drum song he had performed was in fact a prayer song he learned from an elder of the Deline village.

The coincidence was too strong for me, and after shaking Michael’s hand, I had to turn away for a moment to stop the tears that sprang to my eyes. All things and doings under creation are surely linked.