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Activist Communiqué - Grassy Narrows: Mercury in the water, mercury in the blood.

This article is about Canada's longest running First Nations blockade.

This article should be about celebrating ten years of resistance from Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek) community members; especially the women who stepped forward as Ogichidaa-Kwe to defend their land and water over a decade ago. The tandem issues that have plagued the people and the land are control over resource extraction and water rights.

But I can’t help but be overwhelmed by a feeling of shame that this situation – the need to defend the land and water to keep the community safe – has been going on for ten long years.

Concern for the traditional health of the land began when settlers to the area started to arrive in the mid-1800s; Treaty 3 governance was signed by stakeholders to prescribe how both settlers and Indigenous would share the land.

That said, with respect to logging and water rights, we need only look back a decade to get a taste of the struggle.  Ten years is ten years too long.

Treaty 3 was supposed to guarantee the rights of Indigenous communities to continue to live traditionally off the land through hunting, fishing, trapping and medicine harvesting. That said, the desire of Grassy Narrows to live in a self-determining community has never actualized thanks to the government.

First, let’s take a look at logging -- which has also led to pulp and paper manufacturing – when the community felt this resource extraction was poisoning their land and community, they rose up in defense of Mother Earth and her Original People.  

To assert their Treaty 3 rights to have prior informed consent to any resource extraction on their territory, the community erected a road block starting on December 2, 2002, at Slant Lake; which is about 600 km northwest of Thunder Bay.

It is now known as the longest running logging blockade in Canada. Supporters of the blockade returned to the site for the ten year anniversary last week as the blockade is still ongoing. There were also Sacred Fires lit in Toronto at Queen’s Park and at the Oshkimaadziig Camp.

The Grassy Narrows blockade stands on solid ground. On August 16, 2011, Grassy Narrows First Nation won a major victory through the Ontario Superior Court of Justice to protect the land rights promised to the Anishinaabek.

Madam Justice Mary-Anne Sanderson's decision, which was over 300 pages in length, found that the Government of Ontario does not have the power to take away the rights in Treaty 3 by authorizing development including logging and mining.

Assembly of First Nations (AFN) National Chief, Shawn A-in-chut Atleo, commented at the time, “We support Grassy Narrows First Nation and all of Treaty 3 territory as they continue to protect their inherent and Treaty rights and their traditional relationship with the land and rivers,” he said. “We sincerely hope the outcome of this case will lead to a new relationship based on mutual respect, and an end to the unnecessary conflicts that have caused anguish and suffering to the citizens of Grassy Narrows and other impacted First Nations communities.”

Looking to Grassy Narrows’ past illustrates the basis of their struggle not only with logging rights but regarding the protection of Mother Earth and her water from the related pulp and paper industry – which used to be the economic engine for smaller Northern Ontario communities and national hub Thunder Bay.

Between 1962 and 1970, a Dryden paper mill once owned by Reed Paper and now owned by the New Domtar contaminated Grassy Narrows’ waters when it dumped 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon River. The dumping finally stopped in 1970, but the mercury contaminated fish and water are still causing debilitating heath issues for residences and their future kin.

A June 4, 2012, report outlined the long-term effects on people who lived along the Wabigoon-English River system in Northwestern Ontario. "Mercury Pollution in First Nations Groups in Ontario, Canada: 35 years of Canadian Minamata Disease" was published in Japanese in the Journal of Minamata Studies in 2011.

Evidence gathered for this report was cobbled together from scientific study by Japanese researchers who determined that communities like Grassy Narrows were suffering from “Ontario Minamata Disease.”

Ontario Minamata Disease, “is a neurological syndrome caused by severe mercury poisoning. It occurred in the Canadian province of Ontario, in 1970, and severely affected two First Nation communities in Northwestern Ontario following consumption of local fish contaminated with mercury, and one First Nation in Southern Ontario due to illegal disposal of industrial chemical waste. The disease was named after the infamous case of severe mercury poisoning in the fishing community of Minamata, Japan, which became known as Minamata disease because it devastated only the residents of the community.”

Japanese scientists first interested in Minamata Japan learned of mercury poisoning reports expressing describing symptoms in Canada, so their research brought them to the Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations communities in Northwestern Ontario.

There, scientists conducted in-depth research into the area and found the source of the mercury originated in the 1960s from a chemical and pulp mill in Dryden, Ontario where the toxins found their way into the English-Wabigoon River System, and then into the fish, most likely from illegal dumping.

For these communities, a diet of fish is the main food source for the area. In related social-economic facts, the commercial fishery and related tourism businesses in the area were their main livelihood.

Mercury in the water. Mercury in the blood.  For as a First Nation community well connected to the land and water, the people suffer the same effects as the traditional territories they are born from. This is no coincidence, and much more real than supernatural.

Both humans and their environment – every river, fish, plant and person suffer the same fate. As Mother Earth’s rivers our akin to the blood in our veins, the reverse is also true as our veins are akin to the rivers and streams of Mother Earth. We are all connected.

Grassy Narrows is still fighting for justice regarding getting the government  to recognize their suffering as the pulp and paper mill’s damage to the water runs in tandem to the damage the logging industry has done to the land.

River Run rallies are held each summer in Ontario. In 2012, Grassy Narrows community members, “travelled 2,000 km to Toronto by foot, train, and bus, and joined hundreds of supporters in deploying 15,000 square feet of blue fabric to create a wild river that flowed to Queen's Park to demand long overdue justice for their people and protection for the waters and forests on which they depend.”

In a Grassy Narrows press release last week, “In the decade since the blockade began, the community continues to maintain a moratorium on clearcutting in their traditional territories. For ten years now, despite the ongoing threat of logging, grandmothers, mothers, trappers and youth have held off some of the world's largest paper corporations. The community has also taken the Ontario government to task for inaction on the ongoing effects of mercury poisoning on their families and ecosystems.”

In an interview with original blockaders for the CBC , “When the cops showed up, they were telling us ‘you can’t do this, what you’re doing is illegal’ and all this stuff,” said Grassy Narrows community member Judy Da Silva. “It was scary.” But not as frightening as watching the forest surrounding the community being clear cut, she said.

“Because of the forest suffering, we as a people also suffer because … the forest is a part of who we are,” Da Silva said. “It’s a part of our lives and anything that destroys that, we feel it right away.”

Grassy Narrows, and their supporters, are demanding:

RESPONSIBILITY: Acknowledge mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows, apologize, and accept responsibility to fix what was broken.

SAFETY: Fund a permanent Grassy Narrows run environmental health monitoring center. Strengthen Health Canada mercury safety guideline to protect all people.

COMPENSATION: Compensate all people diagnosed by the Japanese doctors, and retroactively index the compensation to inflation.

RESTORATION: Clean and restore the English-Wabigoon river system. Stop the mills from polluting the water and air.

JUSTICE: Restore Grassy Narrows control over Grassy Narrows Territory. End destructive industrial logging on Grassy Narrows territory.

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