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August 24, 2023
Volume 193 No. 34

Local filmmakers document little known Canadian connection to the Atomic Bomb

<p>Following the trail from Port Hope (From left) Bernie Finkelstein, Michèle Hozer, and Dave Hatch in Port Hope for the CBC documentary Atomic Reaction, a Prince Edward County production.   (Submitted Photo)</p>
Following the trail from Port Hope (From left) Bernie Finkelstein, Michèle Hozer, and Dave Hatch in Port Hope for the CBC documentary Atomic Reaction, a Prince Edward County production. (Submitted Photo)

“To cut to the crash scene,” says legendary music producer Bernie Finkelstein, now semi-retired in Ameliasburgh, and clearly relishing his new role as a filmmaker, “all the uranium used for the production of three atomic bombs, the two dropped on Japan and the first, test bomb called Trinity, was processed in Port Hope and likely also came from Canada.”

Together with co-producer Dave Hatch, of Hatch Gallery, Mr. Finkelstein will soon begin promotion of a CBC documentary called Atomic Reaction.

The pair met in the County. Mr. Hatch, a well-known producer and host for TSN’s Motorcycle Experience, suggested a collaboration to Mr. Finkelstein. Together they recruited Michèle Hozer, a Gemini-award winning documentary filmmaker, as director and editor. Ms. Hozer’s editing studio, The Cutting Factory, might be better known to County residents as the flower shop of the same name she runs out of her barn in Waupoos. Ms. Hozer has worked on over 50 Canadian films.

The release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, which is playing at the Regent this week, complements the story the film tells of Canada’s role in the Manhattan Project.

It starts in the present, in Port Hope, where a $2.6 billion-dollar, decade-long cleanup is five years in. The town is saturated in low-level radioactive waste linked to the refining of uranium. Hundreds of houses have been taken down because they were built on foundations filled in with uranium dust. Radioactive soil is slowly being collected, at enormous expense, and stored in 500-year long-term waste containers near the 401.

“We were aware of the cleanup in Port Hope, and the deeper we got into the history, the more fascinated we got. The story of how the uranium was discovered, not enough people know about it, and the fact that all the uranium used for the first atom bombs was processed in Canada, in Port Hope, is something Canadians still don’t know anything about,” said Mr. Finkelstein.

From Port Hope, the documentary follows the trail of a brilliant prospector, Gilbert Labine, who, after studying a 1901 Geological Survey of Echo Bay, found silver and radium at Great Bear Lake in the Northwest Territories in 1930.

“At the time, uranium was not in demand. But Labine had learned that pitchblende — a rock containing radium, cobalt, uranium, and silver — could be found in the Arctic. He hired a bush plane, and the story goes that something caught his eye while flying over Great Bear Lake. And he asked the pilot to turn back.”

There is another version of this story, one that involves the knowledge of the Indigenous Dene people. “The story there is that a Dene elder told Labine about the site and said there was a shiny black rock that was really interesting, that he should look out for,” said Mr. Finkelstein.

“We tell the story two ways in our film – there are two different views on how Labine, a prospector for gold and silver, discovered uranium in a remote location of Canada in 1930. The Indigenous people of Great Bear Lake play a big part in this story.”

Radioactive sacks An unidentified man stands by stacks of pitchblende concentrate awaiting shipment at Port Radium, NWT in 1939. (Richard Finnie/NWT Archives)

“At that point, in 1930,” he notes, “there was no other uranium in North or South America, there was no use for it, nobody knew what it was.”

What was valuable was radium, which Marie Curie had isolated in pitchblende in 1902.

“It was considered an elixir in the 1930s,” says Ms. Hozer. “It was thought to be a miracle at the time as it helped shrink tumours and make instrument dials glow in the dark.”

Radium was one of the most expensive commodities in the world. The only other known discoveries were in modern-day Czechoslovakia and the Belgian Congo. A single gram sold for $US 40,000 – $60,000.

Immediately after his discovery, Labine staked the claim of Eldorado Gold Mining Ltd. at Great Bear Lake. By 1932, he had built a refinery at Port Hope, 6000km from the base that is still called Port Radium. The Sahtúot’ine, or Sahtu Dene, the people of Great Bear Lake, helped carry the radioactive ore, in sacks on their backs, to barges waiting to carry it along the Northern Transportation Route to Fort McMurray and from there by rail to Port Hope.

“Port Hope was chosen because there was an old Pea factory for sale there,” explains Mr. Finkelstein, “and because, in his eyes, the biggest market would be the U.S. – right across the lake.”

Uranium was a by-product from the refinement of ore for radium.

“Uranium was in this white sand that just piled up. Huge piles of it accumulated at the refinery in Port Hope. So they started to give it away, and it spread all over town as a building material, in foundations, to shore up building sites, under houses, schools, the fire station, everywhere,” said Ms. Hozer.

Meanwhile, however, “physicists from around the world were all trying to figure out how to split the atom,” says Mr. Finkelstein. While radium fell out of favour, prices dropping so precipitously that the Port Radium mine was closed in 1940, the Manhattan Project was right around the corner.

A sudden, insatiable demand for uranium by the U.S. — one order alone was for 60 tonnes — put the mine and refinery in business again. The remote Arctic site was suddenly a critical player in a global military industrial complex.

By 1942, Eldorado secured a contract with the United States military to supply uranium for the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb. The Canadian Government expropriated both the mine at Great Bear Lake and the refinery at Port Hope as part of the war effort. They became a Crown Corporation, Eldorado Mining and Refining Limited.

“Canada’s involvement is a bit more than just that, though,” said Mr. Finkelstein. “In 1943 there was a secret pact made in Quebec City, between Prime Minister Churchill, President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Mackenzie King.”

“The leaders of the UK, the US, and Canada agreed they would build a weapon of mass destruction, which became the A-Bomb. And they agreed on two more things,” added Ms. Hozer. “First, they would never use it on each other, and second, that they would tell each other before they used it.”

“Canada is not a bit player on the world stage when it comes to nuclear weapons. That is the story we tell,” said Mr. Finkelstein.

“And,” adds Ms. Hozer, “we show what the main product of the atomic reaction really is. Waste. Nuclear waste can last tens of thousands of years.  For all practical purposes it is immortal. Therefore the situation in Port Hope forces us to reflect on just how short-term our thinking tends to be.”

In 1998, the Dene people formally apologized to Japan for their role in the Canadian government’s extraction of the uranium that was used to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By contrast, the Canadian government has never publicly discussed its role in the bombings.

The team is awaiting final approval on its final cut from CBC’s documentary channel. Before it hits the CBC, though, the film will hit the festival circuit.

This text is from the Volume 193 No. 34 edition of The Picton Gazette
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