Earlier this week, it was shown that the provincial government had been hiding and downplaying information on the serious implications of mercury poisoning the people of Grassy Narrows have been suffering. Responding to this grotesque cover-up that multiple provincial governments have known about -- and have been intentionally burying so they can push through with a clear-cut plan -- the people of Grassy Narrows and First Nations leaders in Ontario held a press conference demanding action.
Steve Fobister Sr., the former Treaty #3 Grand Chief, announced a courageous and immediate hunger strike until the provincial government recognizes the situation. He stated, "I'm dying anyway, one piece at a time," as he sufferers from ALS which is crippling his body from mercury poisoning. Like too many people in his community, Fobister is dying and has severe disabilities, but successive governments just don’t care because of what appears to be no other reason than it is First Nations people who are sick.
This morning Steve Fobister Sr. ended his hunger strike so that he can live and continue to fight for Grassy Narrows, for all Aboriginal people, and for the environment. Fobister said he'll end the hunger strike that he started after meeting with the Ontario Minister of Aboriginal Affairs and that "The minister's statement has brought some measure of comfort, but we still have work to do."
"This has put an awakening in the whole community. We are coming together to continue our stand together."
"I have flushed the government fox out of his fox hole. But our work is not done I will not stop pushing for justice."
"My priority is to see the children who fell victim to this mercury disease taken care of. That is something I will see done."
"I will continue to work with Judy to build unity in our community to achieve the justice we deserve. Part of our reserve still does not have running water."
"I want people fasting with me to stop now. They are young and they need their energy."
People are demanding justice. Mr. Fobister's and the Anishinaabe of Grassy Narrows' fight is everyone's fight. It is time the provincial government takes tangible and sincere actions to treat the people of Grassy Narrows with the dignity and humanity that all people deserve. It is a time for action, not more words and excuses.
Last night a public forum drew over 500 people to hear a panel with Grassy Narrows community members, Judy da Silva, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Stephen Lewis raised further awareness on issues of Indigenous sovereignty and the area's continuing health crisis arising from mercury poisoning.
Steve Fobister described the flooding that forced Grassy to be relocated in '63, the legacy of residential schools and the effects mercury poisoning has had on everyone in the community.
This glimpse of daily life for the people of Grassy Narrows should be a clarion call for all people across Ontario to demand action. Steve spoke about a 20-year-old mother who came to him and whose son gets 6 seizures/day; this lead to his decision to begin his hunger strike, despite his own condition. A "hunger strike is when you want to show people when something is wrong... and things are wrong," at Grassy Narrows. "Politicians play their political and legal games. But we are a People."
Many other speakers addressed the deplorable circumstances imposed on Grassy Narrows:
"We want the quality of life that Canadians enjoy in general" - Chief Frobister
"If mercury was dumped into the Toronto Harbour, it would get cleaned up" - Chief Fobister
"The apology on residential schools has been followed by abject hypocrisy" - Stephen Lewis
"Treaties are not a bill of sale. Treaty 3 lands are not ceded!" - Leanne Betasamosake Simpson
"We have been poisoned since the 1950s, we've known since the 1970s, and now it's 2014" - Judy da Silva
"We have to be at the front together" - Judy da Silva
Grassy Narrows’ demands are simple, just and long overdue:
- Apologize, and take responsibility for allowing mercury to poison people in Grassy Narrows.
- Compensate all mercury survivors and make sure that they have quality health care.
- Clean up the river.
- Do not allow clearcut logging that will release more mercury.
Yesterday, Ontario Minister of Aboriginal Affairs, David Zimmer, held a press conference about the situation. Zimmer said he would work with his fellow ministers to "determine how best to help those with mercury-related health issues." He also called for "review of the Mercury Disability Board and all of its operations and responsibilities," going on to disingenuously say, "It's those kinds of issues that have recently come to our attention. Things have changed in 29 years, there are different technologies and different ways of managing the effects of mercury" (my emphasis). He went on to highlight that Ontario would also look at options for more treatment for Grassy Narrows First Nation residents in their community as they currently have to travel long distances for medical help.
Zimmer said he was stirred during his three-hour talk on Sunday with former Grassy Narrows chief Steve Fobister, who suffers from the debilitating neurological effects of mercury poisoning and has been pushing for the review. "Hearing directly from him in a very human way what mercury poisoning is all about, it moves the soul and it moves everyone to want to do something to combat it," he said. "I think Ontarians, First Nation members and indeed all Canadians... feel in their hearts that something has to be done."
This raises a few flags. I have no doubt Zimmer was stirred during his talk with Steve Fobister. Zimmer stated that he'll call federal officials Tuesday afternoon to get the ball rolling and travel Aug. 6 to Grassy Narrows. But, why does it take a very ill man starting a hunger strike to the provincial government to do anything for the people of Grassy Narrows, or for that matter our First Nations communities across the province? Why even now is the Wynne government only committed to explore or look for options for onsite treatment?
While it is a rhetorical question, it highlights how far we have to go to eliminate racism and unlearn colonialism in this country.
Steve Fobister Sr. emphasized that he wants to see greater participation from both levels of government to be "seriously committed, not just to play political and legal games with the persisting problems that we're dealing with at this time… First Nations and governments have been talking for the last 50 years about the issue and it can't go on forever… I don't think I have any more level of comfort to talk another 50 years.”
Fobister went on to state, "There are people that are in need right now – it’s not something that we are going to talk about forever… The government has been sitting on this report since 2009," and the board “continues to overlook the sick people of Grassy Narrows.”
It is important to also remember this is the Wynne government... This is the same Kathleen Wynne who in 2012 visited Grassy Narrows and spoke about rebuilding Ontario's relationship with Grassy Narrows and "getting it right." Then decided to push unilaterally to clear-cut Treaty #3 land without consent or concern for the people of Grassy Narrows.
Premier Wynne was in Northern Ontario this morning, but not at Grassy Narrows. She was in Thunder Bay today where she announced that "the government will help it expand its patient-centred health care research. The province is providing more than $4 million in support. The institute is an independent, not-for-profit research corporation that develops technology to detect and treat diseases such as cancer."
She stated that, "Patient care is at the centre of things at the Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre… I am a big believer in working together.” Further, she said that “Our government is committed to making smart investments to improve health care and create jobs in Northern Ontario. I am pleased that this support will help the institute perform cutting-edge research that will improve health care."
Let's be clear: while a $4 million dollar investment in Northern Healthcare is important, why do the people of Grassy Narrows still have to deal with traveling to Winnipeg for treatment on their own money, be subject to onerous paperwork and often be denied compensation as a result of dated research/criteria from past studies. As Judy da Silva points out, "Everyone should have gotten automatic compensation forever, for us to go and beg for pennies is ridiculous."
The Premier is also taking the time on her trip to attend the Matawa First Nations Annual General Meeting in Martin Falls. It is clear that her government’s ambitions for mining in "the Ring of Fire" obviously take precedent over the Premier meeting with those who have journeyed all the way from Grassy Narrows to Toronto to demand the most basic justice.
It is no surprise then that yesterday at Queens Park the Nishnawbe Aski Nation (NAN) Grand Chief Harvey Yesno, along with Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy and others, gave formal notice to Canada, the province, resource developers and the general public through a Notice of Assertion that "First Nations inherent and Treaty rights will continue to be asserted in original territories and ancestral homelands in Ontario. These rights include, but are not limited to, those re-affirmed by Section 35 of the Constitution of Canada and the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples."
In the wake the SCC ruling on the cases involving Grassy Narrows and Tsilhqot'in, the five leaders stated that Aboriginal people in Ontario are prepared to lay down their lives to protect their traditional lands from any unwanted development.
"Proposed resource development is putting tremendous pressure on our lands and First Nations are facing unprecedented challenges and threats to our inherent and Treaty rights," said Grand Chief Harvey Yesno. "Many communities are struggling to address basic issues such as access to health care, housing, education and economic development. NAN Chiefs have made it clear that we, the people of the land, will defend our right to control development in our territories so that the wealth from our lands continues to benefit and sustain our people and our Nation."
Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy stated, "All those seeking to access or use First Nations lands and resources have, at a minimum, a duty to engage, enquire and consult with First Nations with the standards of free, prior and informed consent… We will take appropriate steps to enforce these assertions."
Aboriginal communities have seen what Canadian and Ontario laws have done to their land over the last 147 years, Beardy said. "The land has become sick. We become sick. We become poor, desperate and dying." The people of Grassy Narrows First Nation are still suffering from mercury poisoning decades after the Wabigoon river around their land was contaminated by a local paper mill, he said.
Grand Chief Harvey also added that the province's Aboriginal people will draw a line in the sand, put a stake in the ground and tie themselves to it if that's what it takes to protect their land from unwanted resource development. He stated, "We're no longer just going to be civilly disobedient. We're going to defend our lands, and there's a big difference there… Our young people are dying, our people are dying. So let's die at least defending our land."
"Anything that happens on our aboriginal homeland now, they must consult with us," said Roger Fobister Sr., chief of Grassy Narrows First Nation. "Even if they're going to cut down one tree, they better ask us."
Ontario Regional Chief Stan Beardy highlighted that Aboriginal communities don't want to harm others. But they'll do what they must to stop an incursion on their lands, such as forming human blockades to stop the clearcutting of trees.
It is long past the time that we can ignore the tragedy the people of Grassy Narrows are suffering and the disregard of Treaty Rights that is occurring across Ontario. Tomorrow is an important chance to join Steve Fobister Sr. and the people of Grassy Narrows in solidarity and demand justice. It is also a chance to listen and learn, to actively unlearn the discourse of colonialism. River Run starts in Toronto on Thursday, July 31, at 12 p.m. at Grange Park. Grassy’s demands must be met.
To learn more about Grassy Narrows see: