Nuclear-Free Future

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5 November 1998

Maisie Shiell

It sounds like a tune from a Broadway musical: Nobody Messes with Maisie. But it’s not a tune. It’s how Priscilla Settee of the Indigenous Women’s Network characterizes the watchdog activism of Maisie Shiell, Canada’s toughest one-grandmother army.

Born in England eighty-five years ago, Maisie Shiell, with her sweet smile and saintly chuckle, is a Canadian uranium mining spokesperson’s nightmare bogey: she never retreats from calling a lie a lie. At press conferences, public hearings, stockholder meetings – at any gathering that has to do with issues nuclear – it’s Maisie’s informed, penetrating questions that strip the “dis” from the uranium industry’s disinformation. They used to tell her: “Maisie, you’re a warm-hearted, well-meaning grandmother, but you don’t understand the first thing about nuclear physics.” Well, Maisie “studied up.” She read everything she could get her hands on, corresponded with experts, and it wasn’t long before she began showing up at public debates to defeat uranium mining officials on their own terrain, pointing out that the figures they were disseminating were juggled, simply didn’t stand up under closer analysis, in nowise explained the peculiar sicknesses and cancer rates of uranium miners and those living in regions adjacent to uranium mines.

Maisie was educated at a Roman Catholic convent in Mayfield, England. In the aftermath of World War II, she went to Germany with the Red Cross to help ease the sufferings of the war’s dispossessed. In 1946 she met her husband, Jim Shiell, a Canadian soldier. Jim and Maisie settled on a farm outside of Govan, Saskatchewan, where they went on to have four children: Hughie, Hector, Josie, and Mary.

Of her husband Maisie tells us: “Jim had only a fifth-grade education, but he was smart as a whip. And he didn’t live up to anyone else’s standards but his own. That’s one reason people respected him so much in Govan… even though he walked around with holes in his pants. He did what he thought was right.”

“My goal in life is to leave behind a safe and healthy world for our children.”

During the fifties and early sixties Maisie was the local correspondent for the Regina Leader Post, writing articles as well for the Saskatoon Star Phoenix. Jim died in 1965, leaving Maisie behind to raise the four children. After completing a two-year teacher’s course at Regina Teachers College, Maisie taught school in rural Saskatchewan and at Montreal Lake Indian Reservation in Northern Saskatchewan. Her interaction with Native Americans profoundly inspired her interest in nature and in environmental issues.

Maisie came to her late anti-nuclear calling in 1976 when her curiosity was stirred by the adamant refusal of the Saskatchewan Environment Minister to enlarge upon his government’s uranium mining policies. The man’s silence spoke volumes to her-something was being hushed up, suppressed. And so, at sixty-one years of age, she began learning how to translate the formulas of nuclear physics into something she could understand and pass along to other lay people – she even went on to complete a university course in nuclear physics. From 1976 to date, Maisie has attended every nuclear hearing held in her province, lamenting that “there hasn’t nearly been enough.” Canadian anti-nuke activists tell us that to have Maisie Shiell at their side at a hearing is like going into court with a sharp-witted, veteran attorney: Maisie knows how to convince.

Maisie’s greatest concern is what uranium tailings will mean for the coming generations. Eighty-five percent of the radioactivity native to uranium ore remains behind in the open tailings to contaminate earth’s tissue and enter the food-chain. Maisie points out that uranium has eight alpha emitters which make it more dangerous in the long term than high level nuclear waste because alpha radiation provokes mutations in genetic and somatic cells. Maisie, working to contain the nuclear curse at its source, says: “Leave the uranium in the ground.”

Maisie’s kittenish, bespectacled smile belies her intense dedication to making the world a safer place for her children, grandchildren, and the coming generations. She says of herself, “My goal in life is to leave behind a safe and healthy world for our children. Before I leave this world, I want to be satisfied that at least I tried. I know I can make a difference, even if it might only be a small one.”

But in this connection we have to mess around with Maisie: her contribution to the Canadian anti-nuclear movement has been long, lasting, and great.
–Claus-Peter Lieckfeld
English version: Craig Reishus