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From Grassy Narrows and Standing Rock to all my relations: This is what we have to lose

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Image: Flickr/Howl Arts Collective

The only way to truly remedy a natural disaster is to prevent it in the first place. This is why the Standing Rock Sioux, as well as First Nations across North America, are rising up to resist untrammeled resource extraction in their legal and traditional territories.

If anyone needs convincing this is an important fight, or what the negative impacts of resource extraction can be on First Nations, let them look no further than Grassy Narrows Ojibwa Reservation in Northern Ontario. For the residents of Grassy Narrows, the result of unchecked industrial resource extraction has been nothing less than a natural disaster.

In the 50 years since the contamination of the Wabigoon River, the federal and provincial governments have failed to grant residents adequate reparations and have done little to help purify the river of mercury contamination. This historic example of disregard by industrial corporations for the sanctity and sovereignty of Indigenous lands is hardly an aberration. And such vacillation and inaction from the government are what First Nations have sadly come to expect.

Earlier this September a team of Japanese researchers, headed by Masanori Hanada, released a report which found 90 per cent of Grassy Narrows residents displayed symptoms of mercury poisoning. Hanada and his team have been researching mercury poisoning and Minamata disease in Ontario for 40 years. The researchers have consistently verified, in chemical and biological terms, what we already know through oral history.

In 1962, the Dryden pulp mill began dumping tonnes of untreated methylmercury effluence, which it used to bleach its paper products, into the English and Wabigoon river systems. Downriver, the economic livelihood of Grassy Narrows hinged largely on a commercial fishery on the Wabigoon, which also serves as drinking water for the population.

The researchers found high levels of mercury in fish populations, and residents began contracting mercury poisoning through intensive consumption of freshwater fish, a traditional staple for nearly all Anishinaabe communities. Moreover, populations of mink, otters, eagles and other animals that depend on fish for subsistence, declined dramatically. This means that traditional economic and subsistence endeavors such as fishing, hunting and trapping were nearly destroyed. In short, a demonstrably criminal disregard for the environment and for First Nations' communities eviscerated the purity of natural resources for the next 50 years and beyond. A brief year of pollution has laid waste to an entire generation's inheritance.

As a response to the environmental devastation, the Ontario government shut down the Wabigoon commercial fishery and simply told the residents to eat less fish. Since then, the government has not declared a moratorium on resource extraction in an around the affected areas -- quite the opposite. The government has issued logging permits despite legal challenges by the First Nation as well as warnings that intensive logging could exacerbate organic mercury levels.

However, for the very same reason, the government has essentially declared its hands are tied in cleaning up mercury in the river. Any measures they may take now to clean up the river will drum up and intensify organic mercury remaining hidden. Ontario showed little interest in the Japanese work while it was ongoing, though it has requested a copy of the current report. Nevertheless, looking over the history, it is clear that the government has done all it can to do nothing at all.

The most tragic part of the story is that this crime is not just in the past, even though the Dryden mill is long closed. Mercury levels in the Wabigoon River are still rising. Traditional sustainable and subsistence industries still suffer. People are still being poisoned.

This is the most troubling finding of Hanada's recent research. In 2005, Hanada and his colleagues declared they would certainly find no new cases of Minimata disease in Grassy Narrows. They were quite certain that mercury levels would subside and no new cases would emerge. Yet, surprisingly, in 2014 they found that 90 per cent of the population still suffers from mercury poising, along with numerous new instances of the disease. Even residents who were unborn when the original pollution occurred have contracted mercury poisoning to some degree. Not all of these youth could have contracted mercury poisoning in the womb, which suggests there may be an ongoing source of methylmercury contamination in the river. Kathleen Wynne promises action, but there is no end in sight.

This is what the Dakota protestors are resisting. This is what every First Nation that fights resource extraction on their land is fighting to preserve: sustainable access to clean food and water. Even one more natural disaster like the one at Grassy Narrows is one too many. We know all too well it is up to us, and all our relations, to prevent anything like this from happening again.

Let us remember Grassy Narrows, that such a crime may never be repeated.

Brett Forester is an Anishinaabe writer and scholar living in Ottawa, Ontario. He is a member of the Chippewa of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation and has recently completed a bachelor's degree in Ottawa.

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Image: Flickr/Howl Arts Collective

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