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  • Writer's pictureMichael Laxer

Nanoose Bay: What we must do!

Kaeli Wood of the Freedom from War Coalition writes of the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges in Nanoose Bay and what people can do to stand up against it.

Canadian Forces CFMETR Nanoose Bay BC (Aerial shot, 2010) -- Photo via Ken Walker - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=127099205


By Kaeli Wood


We in Nanaimo are lucky enough to live in a town that, since 1987, has declared itself, in its bylaws, a nuclear weapons free zone. Bylaw 3199, to be specific, declares that “the manufacture, transportation, storage and distribution of all nuclear weapons and components of nuclear weapons” is prohibited within city limits. Those who love peace may find this comforting, and indeed from the perspective of peace activism, it is a heartening piece of legislation.


The city we now call Nanaimo lies on the traditional, ancestral and unceded territories of the Snuneymuxw, Snaw-Naw-As and Stz'uminus First Nations. For many non-Indigenous peoples, the idea that one might be standing in more than one nation at once is a strange one, but it is a reality. The hard-and-fast border between nations is a fairly recent invention in historical terms, and it is, of course, a colonial one.


Just north of Nanaimo, on Nanoose Bay, lies the Canadian Forces Maritime Experimental and Test Ranges, or CFMETR. This facility sits right across the water from the Snaw-Naw-As Nation reserve. This site was chosen because of the depth of the bay and the soft silty seabed which makes it ideal for the testing of sonar and the testing and retrieval of torpedoes. This facility is host to a lot of Canadian military craft, but since the 1960’s it is also commonly host to American military craft, specifically submarines, many of which are nuclear-powered, some of which are nuclear armed. CFMETR is one of only two ports in BC that have clearance to host nuclear arms, the other being CFB Esquimalt. While it’s technically true that there are no nuclear weapons within Nanaimo City Limits, anyone who knows how nuclear weapons work (and, with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer film hitting theaters this summer, most people should have a pretty good understanding) may not find much comfort in our bylaw. Those hard-and-fast colonial borders that mark city limits won’t make a difference in the case of an accident.


Though the City sends a representative to sit in on accident preparedness drills at CFMETR once yearly, there is no publicly accessible plan that I know of with regards to public safety in the event of a nuclear accident. I don’t want to make the claim that there isn’t one, but I would suggest that, if such a plan for public safety exists, but members of the public, even if they’re actively looking, can’t find it, then maybe it’s not such a great plan. The City of Nanaimo’s Emergency Response and Recovery Plan does not include information about the military or about anything nuclear, either.


What I can find without too much trouble are studies from the 1980s onward talking about the possibility of nuclear accidents at these ports, the likely effects of fallout, and the recommendations to protect the public, one of which is that nuclear emergency drills be established, well-known and regularly rehearsed (the interested reader may wish to look up Dr. W. Jackson Davis’s study from the University of California at Santa Cruz, published the same year Nanaimo set its anti-nuclear weapons bylaw, in 1987). I’ve lived in Nanaimo for most of my life, and I’ve been through a lot of fire drills and earthquake drills, but I have never done a nuclear emergency evacuation drill.


In this era of increased anxiety about the possibility of nuclear war, I don’t wish to be a fearmonger. I am not trying to tell you that the US Navy are a bunch of incompetent fools who are cartoonishly slipping on banana peels as they carry nukes around on the shores of Nanoose Bay. I’m not suggesting you start drawing up a blueprint for a bunker under your house. My point in talking about CFMETR is not to create a panic, but to start a conversation.


I want people to start asking themselves why we are letting the US and Canadian navies test technologies that are known to cause distress, injury and death to marine mammals in neighboring waters.


I want people to start asking why it’s okay for CFMETR to spend decades dumping copper wire, lithium batteries, lead and other toxic materials into Nanoose Bay, and to refuse to allow independent scientific research on the environmental impacts at the site, because according to the Canadian Forces, the soft seabed can absorb those toxins just fine.


I want people to start asking why it’s okay for us to have some of the only nuclear weapons in BC so close to the Snaw-Naw-As reserve that, in the case of an emergency, the people who live there would be the first to feel the fallout and would bear the very worst of it.


Snaw-Naw-As Nation has tried to get land back from CFMETR in recent years, and has been refused. I want people to start asking why the Canadian and BC governments, which claim to be so committed to Reconciliation, think it’s better to give this land and those waters to a foreign military to use as a testing ground for tools of war than it is to return them to those who have taken care of it since time immemorial.


I want people to start asking why we are okay with tools of war parading past our homes all the time, damaging our waters and our seabed, disrupting our wildlife and diverting funding from things that would actually make our lives better.


I want people to start asking how we can be contented with and proud of our anti-nuke bylaw but not worried about nukes just north of us.


The peace movement is an international one, and it’s important to think internationally, to forget about those colonial borders, for people here to pay attention to and care about and take action on things that are happening in Ukraine, or in Gaza, or in Iran, or in the United States, or anywhere else. But I also know that we don’t have to look far to see threats to peace, and that sometimes the things we are best equipped to understand and to fight are those things which are closest to home.


There are many ways that you can join the fight against militarism in your own communities. You can call CFMETR and tell them what you think. You can talk to people you know, and not stop talking about it, since we know that injustice thrives on apathy and ignorance. You can support movements for Indigenous sovereignty and for Land Back. If you work in education or you know someone who does, you can make a little noise about military propaganda in the curriculum and military recruiters in schools. You can write to your MPs and MLAs. And you can— and should— join or work with peace groups such as the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, Project Ploughshares, the Quakers, Canadian Voice of Women for Peace, World Beyond War Canada, Vancouver Island Peace Council, Canada Network to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, the Pugwash Group, the Canadian Peace Congress, or the Freedom from War Coalition.


Kaeli Wood is a teacher and peace activist from Nanaimo, BC. She is a founding member of the Freedom from War Coalition.

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