Arts

In 1978, a Soviet satellite exploded over traditional Dené land. Its effects are still felt today

In the new podcast Operation Morning Light, writer Michael LaPointe and broadcaster Dëneze Nakehk'o dive into the little-known chapter of Canadian history.

New podcast Operation Morning Light dives into a little-known chapter of Canadian history

Three members of the Operation Morning Light team stand in front of an airplane in uniform, wearing gas masks.
An Operation Morning Light team in 1978. (Courtesy of Operation Morning Light/Imperative Productions)

On Jan. 24, 1978, a Soviet nuclear satellite called Kosmos 954 re-entered the Earth's atmosphere and exploded over northern Canada. Radioactive debris was spread across the eastern part of the Northwest Territories, the western part of what's now Nunavut and into northern Alberta and Saskatchewan. A joint Canadian-American recovery team spent most of the year searching a 124,000 km/sq area. That recovery effort was known as Operation Morning Light.

Writer Michael LaPointe thinks that Canadians often see their country's history as kind of boring. We don't think there are a lot of stories that come out of this country with what he calls "that brilliant appeal." It's that mindset, he says, that leads us to overlook the stories that we do have, including ones like Operation Morning Light.

"This was another example of how, even when we do have a story like that, it just somehow falls by the wayside," he says. "I was kind of amazed that I had never heard of this. I think every single detail that I subsequently researched or whatever was an extension of that initial surprise."

He started digging into the story and thinking about how he could tell it. Initially, he thought about doing a feature-length documentary on the topic, but realized that with all the layers to the story, the format might not do it justice. Instead, he decided to do a podcast.

Also called Operation Morning Light, the first episode of the podcast drops today. It's hosted by Dëneze Nakehk'o, a veteran Yellowknife-based Dené broadcast journalist, and produced by Aliya Pabani.

Soviet nuclear satellite crashes in Northwest Territories

45 years ago
Duration 2:48
Six civilians on a northern expedition find the debris of the satellite that fell to earth on Jan. 24, 1978.

While it's true that Operation Morning Light is a little-known chapter of Canadian history, there is one group of people who are all too aware of Kosmos 954 and the subsequent effort to recover it: the Dené people who live on the eastern end of Great Slave Lake. Their communities received the biggest hit from the debris, and continue to live with its long-tail effects, including radiation on their traditional lands and drastically increased cancer rates. 

"[The way] the story had been told in the official reports and in what little academic literature there was, is very much from the Southern perspective," says LaPointe. "It seemed like such an unbelievable gap in the story, that it had never been told from the perspective of the people who actually lived in that place where it transpired. The voices of those communities had been completely excluded from the process from the very beginning. It seemed obvious that a Dené journalist should be the one taking the helm of it."

That's when LaPointe reached out to Nakehk'o to act as the podcast's host.

"I started reaching out to Dëneze on Twitter," he says. "I think he though I was a scammer or something like that at first." 

For his part, Nakehk'o said he asked two things from LaPointe before he signed on to the project. The first was not to tokenize him. The second was to make sure that, when audiences were done listening to the podcast, they'd know about the Dené people, their history and what happened on their lands.

Nakehk'o, who is a member of Liidlii Kue First Nation, says he wants to put Kosmos 954 and the subsequent recovery effort in the correct historical context: as part of a series of destructive incursions into Dené territory, going all the way back to the Dené people's first interactions with Europeans. And he wanted to also tell the story of how, in spite of these ongoing incursions, Dené people have kept working to preserve the land.

"There's been a number of different incursions that have impacted our way of life," he says. "If you think about residential school, that's another incursion that we were forced to deal with and it impacted our way of life. I think it's a story of resilience, it's a story of perseverance, and it's really a story about trying to keep the land good. We've been here a long time. We've been here before Jesus, we've been here before Canada, and I think we're going to be here after that."

A diagram of Kosmos 954. (Courtesy of Operation Morning Light/Imperative Productions)

The podcast also attempts to put the story of Operation Morning Light into a broader context in terms of the global arms race during the Cold War. Dené territory was just one part of the world that was negatively affected by nuclear fallout.

"As we began to tell the story of this land, it began to pull in all of these other kinds of vast, far-flung geographies," says LaPointe. "So in this podcast, we have scenes that take place on the Kazakh steppe. There's remote parts of China where nuclear bombs are being tested. There's stuff falling into the Indian Ocean near Madagascar."

"Once we began to seriously examine this patch of land in the north of Canada, in order to tell that story, we also were suddenly going to all these different locations to kind of account for how this catastrophe occurred in the first place."

Nakehk'o says that his main goal for the podcast is to bring more attention to Operation Morning Light and the way it continues to affect Dené communities, and to make sure that the people they spoke to feel that their voices were heard and honoured. In terms of how broader audiences receive it, he's not thinking about it too much.

"When I think about [the south] too much, I usually get a couple headaches," he says. "So, I like to focus on where I come from and the people that are here. The things that make me feel good are the little head nods of acknowledgement from my elders and people in my community. If I get the head nod, I feel like I'm on the right path."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chris Dart

Web Writer

Chris Dart is a writer, editor, jiu-jitsu enthusiast, transit nerd, comic book lover, and some other stuff from Scarborough, Ont. In addition to CBC, he's had bylines in The Globe and Mail, Vice, The AV Club, the National Post, Atlas Obscura, Toronto Life, Canadian Grocer, and more.

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