Chief Emerita, Curve Lake First Nation
Emily Whetung shares her story of growing up and serving as Chief of Curve Lake First Nation and the importance of Indigenous perspectives and balance in nuclear.
What inspired you to become Chief of Curve Lake First Nation — the community you grew up in?
Growing up in Curve Lake First Nation, on the water surrounded by extended family, was idyllic. Our community was close-knit, and we invested time in our children. So when I began a family of my own, I wanted my children to be raised in Curve Lake, surrounded by their extended family, immersed in our Anishinaabe culture, and exposed to our language daily. Spending time with their grandparents every day to learn about the land, our history, and the gratitude of Anishinaabe first-hand can only be found here at home.
My husband and I built a house, had children, and faced some harsh realities. Without access to potable water, we couldn’t simply let the kids play in the bath — we had to lean over the edge the entire time to make sure they didn’t drink the water. Making baby food required carting huge jugs of water and using a dispenser that required constant maintenance and cleaning. It made me think about my children’s future, and I was faced with some hard facts. As idyllic as my childhood was, there are some very serious issues facing families in Curve Lake. I started to think long-term and began worrying about where my children would live as adults and where they would be raising their children. As hard as it was, our family is lucky because the health impacts we suffered were minimal compared to other community members living here with long-term health implications from contaminated water.
My community had supported me in pursuing higher education — first in my undergraduate studies at Trent University and then in attaining my Juris Doctor at Osgoode Hall Law School. However, there was never an “ask” from my community to give back. On the contrary, I always felt supported in my educational pursuits and was encouraged to be the best I could be. This generosity from my community, and my growing concern for my children’s future, blossomed into a concern for all children in our community and our future generations. Culturally, we talk about always looking at impacts for seven generations, and I suddenly had a tangible idea of what those generations would look like.
With the skills I learned at law school and the concerns I had for future generations, I realized I could make a difference. I could put those skills to use by running for Chief, and I could make the changes necessary to ensure all future generations in Curve Lake had access to clean drinking water. I would hate to leave a cliff hanger here — my term as Chief is over, and I’m very proud to say that with the Water Class Action, I was able to make a difference to the drinking water situation for potentially 258 First Nations across Canada.
How has your view on nuclear energy shifted as you’ve learned more about the industry?
Early on in my term as Chief of Curve Lake, a nuclear company was applying for a licence from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission to start a new process within the traditional territory of Curve Lake. There was a general feeling that nuclear activities in our territory were undesirable. We had the usual stereotypes to go on — Fukushima, Chernobyl, and The Simpsons.
After a decade of being a lawyer, my starting point was to learn as much as I could about the nuclear industry so I could appropriately advocate for my community. As I learned about the nuclear industry, I started to question most of the things I thought I knew about the energy industry as a whole. I began questioning the ideas of “renewable” energy sources too. I became aware of the fact that all energy sources have consequences. This should not have been surprising to me — that’s one of the basic teachings in our culture. Every action has a consequence. The Anishinaabe take an offering out when we harvest to ask for balance in the world when we take what we need to survive. To say thank you for the plants or animals giving their lives so we can thrive. Our foundational belief is balance, never overusing a single resource, and this is what I’ve come to believe about the energy industry. We must find a balance between all energy types that allow the planet to flourish.
The other issue that has become more apparent is that we need an immediate solution to the climate crisis. Energy grids around the world continue to rely on carbon-emitting sources. It has become apparent to me that the possibility of an energy grid based only on wind and solar isn’t currently viable and has other serious environmental consequences. Anishinaabe teachings focus on balance, and I’ve come to believe we need a diverse energy grid based on a balance of a stable nuclear baseload supplemented by other sources such as hydro, wind, and solar.
What advice would you give companies in the nuclear energy space looking to create meaningful relationships with Indigenous communities?
The best advice I could give anyone hoping to build a relationship with Indigenous Communities is to take the time to learn about the community first. Come and build those relationships now because you want to, because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t come to a community and put your needs first. Take the time to build a relationship. Get to know the community — the needs, goals, and dreams we have, the issues we face, and our plan to overcome those issues. Ask questions and listen to the answers.
Companies often show up, tell us what they need and what we need, impose their own position and perspectives, brush off what’s being said because they’re certain they know what’s best, and then seem confused when it doesn’t work out. Awareness of your bias while walking into a relationship will help you overcome it. Listening is integral to building a meaningful relationship.
Why are Indigenous perspectives so important in the conversation surrounding nuclear?
In the Canadian legal landscape, Indigenous perspectives are required for new processes to take place in our traditional territories. As Canada looks to implement the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), we’re going to see how the clause requiring free, prior, and informed consent will be implemented, and this can only reinforce the legal doctrine of the Duty to Consult and legally required Accommodations on project development. This means Indigenous perspectives being integrated into the conversation surrounding nuclear and the development of new nuclear projects are a legal requirement. We have to find a way to move forward together.
However, if we step away from legally mandated conversations and turn to the real desire to find new ways for our cultures to live peacefully together, I think there are very practical reasons to include Indigenous perspectives. For example, many Indigenous people have generations of knowledge about the environmental landscape that helps us to understand climate change. We have documented how populations of plants and animals have changed over time. As the people who have tended to the environment in any given region, we have intimate first-hand knowledge about the health and well-being of our environment — what it needs to flourish and grow. We also have vast experience dealing with integrating new species that disrupt the balance of a given ecology. This information can be invaluable in evaluating the environmental impacts and assessing the least environmentally disruptive path forward or rehabilitating a site at the end of its use.
As you’ve mentioned, nuclear is a clear path out of the carbon-climate crisis, but we must find a better balance to protect the earth. How can we find this balance?
I was asked on a panel to describe my views on nuclear in a single word, and I think it’s the short answer to what you’re asking here. Nuclear is the fastest path to a carbon-free energy portfolio. When we look at energy sources, it’s no longer enough to look at the carbon output of that energy source. We must start looking at the carbon emissions from mining, manufacturing, building, and installation of all energy sources. If our wind turbines are manufactured in a country entirely reliant on carbon-emitting energy sources and shipped to Canada on carbon-emitting vessels, our goal of reducing net carbon emissions will decrease exponentially. This is the lifecycle carbon footprint of the energy.
We must also think beyond carbon emissions — the total ecological footprint of an energy source. For example, does it make sense to clear-cut forests to install solar and wind fields? What impact do these installations have on various plant and animal species? Nuclear has a smaller lifecycle carbon footprint than wind and solar and is second only to hydroelectric.
That said, I want to address the elephant in the conversation head-on. Nuclear energy has waste products that last for generations, and this causes great concern for many people. What we don’t have conversations about are the wind and solar waste products that also last for generations. We must start to have real conversations about all waste coming from energy sources. The single word that I used originally to define my views on nuclear being a clear path out of the carbon-climate crisis was that it must be temporary. I’ve updated this word recently to ‘evolving’ because I was creating some confusion about how long temporary would be (I was thinking generations). Evolving captures the idea that we need to continue to find innovative solutions for our energy needs so we don’t end up in the same place years from now — a climate crisis of something other than carbon. To find a balance, we must continue to innovate.