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Rock and Soul; It would be easy to dismiss Donna Dillman as a flake, but you shouldn't. For 28 days near Sharbot Lake, the 53-year-old has been on a hunger strike to protest uranium mining. Janice Kennedy finds out why

The Ottawa Citizen: Janice Kennedy - November 4, 2007

SHARBOT LAKE, Ont. - The lake country west of Perth, a landscape of clear waters and boreal forests, could be a postcard for the True North Strong and Free. On the road up from Highway 7 into the interior, its sides defined by crags and dark outcroppings, travel is not so much across the Canadian Shield as through it. Precambrian rock, old as time, holds the planet's secrets.

One of those secrets is uranium, the heavy-metal element that offers new power sources through nuclear reactors -- and the dark possibility of destruction, through weapons and radioactive pollution.

It is uranium's dark side that has a 53-year-old woman spending hard days and nights by the side of a county road in the area, stubbornly cold and without food. For 28 days now, Donna Dillman has been on a hunger strike.

"It was something I felt I could do," she says simply, explaining this particular protest. "It was an attention-getter." She plans to take no food until the provincial government declares a moratorium on uranium mining in Eastern Ontario.

Dillman's home these days is a roadside patch of the rugged terrain 12 kilometres north of Sharbot Lake. A stretch of gravel and grass, it is dotted with flags, temporary shelters and signs announcing that "Our spirits will not be broken." The site is outside gates opening on to more than 12,000 hectares (30,000 acres) marked for uranium exploration and open-pit mining by Frontenac Ventures. Nineteenth-century provincial legislation allows the company to enter private and Crown land without permission and mine underground minerals -- like uranium, whose market popularity has skyrocketed in recent years.

The project exploded into controversy when a private landowner was outraged to discover last fall that Frontenac had staked some of his property and, subsequently, when the area's First Nations communities set up a blockade June 28. In a letter to Premier Dalton McGuinty, Chiefs Doreen Davis and Paula Sherman pointed out that the land is unceded Algonquin territory, and, "while we generally permit activities by non-Algonquins in our territory, and indeed welcome settlers and the development they bring, we cannot accept uranium exploration."

Their concerns are understandable. When released from the rock that encases it, radioactive uranium can contaminate both air and water. The tailings, pulverized rock left over after extraction, possess elevated concentrations of radioisotopes. They release radon gas into the atmosphere and seepage water contains radioactive material and other toxins. >From the proposed mine area, that water would end up in the Mississippi River watershed and ultimately in Ottawa, where it could filter into the capital's water supply.

Frontenac Ventures, which says its extraction method is safer than earlier methods, claims its mine would have no measurable impact on an environment that already has plenty of natural uranium contamination.

Native protesters temporarily left the blockaded site two weeks ago to await the outcome of legal wrangling between them and the mining company. But Dillman is in for the long haul.

She has spent her nights in a sleeping bag inside a cramped camper van and, more recently, a hut. During the day, she walks about the small area or sits by a fire that warms shins and little else.

Even in the crisp sunshine of a late fall day, it is cold, with gusts of wind

funnelling up the road to the site. This is the worst part of it, she says, this cold that penetrates her five layers of clothing and seems to come from both outside and in.

Matter-of-factly, she reports that she has headaches, sleeps poorly and gets dizzy if she stands or turns too quickly. To maintain her strength, she drinks herbal tea, juice and a concoction of maple syrup, lemon juice and cayenne pepper, which neutralizes stomach acid. She has dropped more than 12 pounds.

But she is awash in support. A nurse checks her every two days, and there are always people around to offer warm socks, fruit juice and companionship. From down the road, Hedy Muysson, 68, drops by three times a week. A former Torontonian who once worked with refugee children, she is profoundly opposed to uranium mining and hopeful about Dillman's protest.

"It has to work," she says. "There's no maybe about it. We can not have a mine here." The protest signs outside homes up and down the road echo her words. The Green Party, to which Dillman and her husband belong, has publicized her hunger strike, and leader Elizabeth May called her "inspirational."

Outside the area, and outside the environmentalist community, reactions to Dillman vary. Many are impressed by the obvious courage of her convictions, but others view her in a less kindly light.

She angers defenders of nuclear power and critics of newer alternative power sources, who see her position as unreasonable and extreme. She gets under the skin of people put off by the implied arrogance of her action, by the suggestion that one ordinary person should make a difference, by the maddening persistence of her self-denial, by her unspoken reproach to the comfortable. Some people just call her a flake.

"Hmm," she says, her smile wry. "I don't consider myself a flake. And I don't think what I'm doing is crazy. I'm here to make a statement."

Wife, mother of four, devoted grandmother, entrepreneur, all-round busy bee, Dillman lives a full, rich life she has no desire to endanger. Nor does she enjoy creating anxiety for her family who, she says, are torn about what she's doing, both proud and worried.

"But I believe in it. I wouldn't be able to keep going if I didn't."

Every second day, she writes Premier McGuinty, who has not yet responded. She wants him to know that uranium and nuclear energy are not benign. That area real estate values are being threatened. That the proposed mining project could endanger a million of his constituents, including family and friends in his home town of Ottawa.

Yes, she admits calmly, her politics and lifestyle probably belong to the "loony left." "But maybe it's time people started listening to the loony left. They've been saying things about cancer and asthma since the '60s, and it's all been proven to be true."

She met her current husband, environmentalist Mike Nickerson, at a 2002 Green Party convention. She has the gentle speech of the "alternative healer" she is in her other life. She practises reiki in the Lanark County home she shares with Nickerson and her youngest daughter.

But the strike and uranium fears transcend polarizing politics, she suggests. "We're doing this for our grandchildren. We could have the Band-Aid solution of power for 30 years, then we'd run out of uranium, too -- except we will have left a lot more hot spots behind and gene damage going into forever. It's not the legacy we want to leave, and I don't think it's the legacy McGuinty wants to leave."

She's willing to give an inch, though. If the government even announced an inquiry into a moratorium possibility, she'd start eating.

"Beyond that, I don't have an end date," she says, wind whipping her words, ancient rock beneath her feet. "I'm here for the duration."

For more information: The Community Coalition Against Mining Uranium (www.ccamu.ca) is sponsoring an information night with Gordon Edwards, founder-president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility (www.ccnr.org). Edwards will talk about the effect of uranium mining on Ottawa and area. The event takes place in Carleton Place at 7 p.m. Wednesday, at Notre Dame Catholic High School, 157 McKenzie St.

The Ottawa Coalition Against Mining Uranium, a new group still being formed, is holding an open meeting at 7 p.m. Monday (Room 125, University of Ottawa, 1 Stewart, corner of Waller). For information call Michelle Landry at 613-836-3258.

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