Grassy Narrows wants justice for destructive logging and mercury poisoning

Photo: flickr/rabble

The Grassy Narrows blockade has been one of the longest and most empowering acts of First Nations resistance against government interference and corporate resource extraction.

Despite suffering from "Attawapiskat syndrome" -- the further away from Ottawa or the Ontario Legislature, the less likely politicians are going to care -- the members of the Grassy Narrows community have made themselves heard loud and clear over more than ten years of blockades and demonstrations

With the spirit of the "longest running Indigenous blockade" strong in their hearts, and with many beautiful traditional Anishinaabe songs coming from the area, the Grassy Narrows community is currently challenging Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne over Ontario’s forestry plan.

The Forest Management plan for the Whiskey Jack Forest 2012-2022 is in the final stages of approval and is currently posted for public comment.

In fact, the Grassy Narrows community is challenging Ontario’s right to issue permits allowing logging on their territory. Community members have sent a letter to Premier Wynn and have also taken their case before the Supreme Court of Canada.

An early Ontario Court of Appeal decision in March of this year decided the province had the right to mine and log on their treaty land. The Grassy Narrows band is challenging that decision.

But this struggle is not simply about logging rights. In fact, nothing is simple around Grassy Narrows First Nations -- or Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nation as it is traditionally called in Anishinaabek.

Logging issues are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the true crisis in Grassy Narrows. The issue is mercury and with so much mercury contaminating the soil, clear cutting and the subsequent erosion which spills sentiment into the rivers, Grassy Narrows is the last place the province should allow clear cutting.

Mercury seeps into every conversation, every river, every bloodline.

It’s been over 40 years since pulp and paper mills from Dryden Ontario poisoned the rivers and the soil at Grassy Narrows.

In March of 1962, Dryden Chemicals began dumping an estimated ten metric tonnes of mercury into the English-Wabigoon River, which contaminated the water, soil, fish and wild game.

Most devastating was the contamination of the fish, which once formed the subsistence economy of Grassy Narrows First Nation, White Dog First Nation and some members of Quibell.

"In 1970, extensive mercury contamination was discovered in this river system, leading to closure of the commercial fishery and some tourism related businesses. On March 26, 1970, the Ontario provincial government ordered Dryden Chemical Company to cease dumping mercury into the river system, although the order did not place any restrictions on airborne emissions of mercury by the company.

It was estimated that over 9,000 kg of mercury had been dumped by the company into the Wabigoon-English river system between 1962 and 1970. The airborne emissions of mercury continued unabated until the company stopped using mercury cells in its chloralkali process in October 1975; the company closed down in 1976.”

Technically, the mercury poisoning is called Minamata Disease.

Community member Judy Da Silva told provincial officials last week that she still sees the effects of mercury poisoning in children entering daycare.

Community members have six points of demands to the government, including that it "acknowledge Minamata Disease in Grassy Narrows, apologize and accept responsibility to resolve the damage and fix the damages."

Unable to take up their traditional fishing area for commercial fishing purposes, Chief Simon Fobister laments that the "unemployment rate is at 80 per cent."

In fact, there have been cases where local fishermen have been arrested for trying to sell fish caught in local rivers due to their high-risk mercury content, and yet the government insists that there are no problems at Grassy Narrows.

Community members explained to me that every spring, as the fresh rivers run, mercury is re-released into the water ways. Clear cut logging also poses a great threat as the consequence of erosion stirs up more of the mercury.

As the water and soil are sick, so are the animals and people impacted. As well as the fish, moose have all but left the traditional territory.

Grassy Narrows Councillor, Rudy Turtle, who is also a traditional hunter, stated that he is "very worried at the moment about the disappearance of moose and strange growths inside the meat of deer and elk."

He continued, "I’m very worried at the moment about the disappearance of the moose and the quality of the meat from the deer and elk. We’re finding tumors in the meat, especially on the organs, and that has not happened before."

Cheaper than buying meat from the store, wild game and fish are used to supplement the diet.

Canadians seem to profess that they agree that First Nations communities should be self-sufficient and able to take part in their traditional ways, and yet the land, water, fish and animals are all so poisoned, it’s irresponsible and blindsided to assume all is well.

Concerned that the government is not taking their concerns about mercury poisoning seriously, proofed in their lack of recognition of Minamata disease and poisoned water, fish and meat, members of Grassy Narrows want to establish an environmental monitoring station with the purpose of collecting enough data so they can present to the province.

Da Silva noted, "I think the [in-house] monitoring system is a step forward in dealing with these issues, all it is, is a monitoring station so we can tell the government how serious it is because right now they don’t believe us."

Health Canada conducted studies on the residents of Grassy Narrows and White Dog to assess risk for mercury contamination over a 15 year period. By the 1990’s zero per cent of patients examined were deemed at risk due to the levels of mercury in their system. 

After all is said and done with the controversy over fishing and logging, members of Grassy Narrows want the government to "clean and restore the English-Wabigoon river system. Stop the mills from polluting the water and air." 

Chief Fobister stated after a meeting with provincial representatives "we’re just tired of mercury being discharged every spring and no one knows when the end is in sight.

People just want to get back to their lives and commercial fishing. We just want the government to get the mercury out of the sediment some way, some how. We can’t live like this."

"You know, the government of Japan managed to contain all the mercury and now their people are back to commercial fishing; their livelihood. Meanwhile, we’ve been waiting and waiting, we’re being nickel-and-dimed, being stonewalled for a solution," Fobister said. 

As the sun sets on another day of the blockade, what the community of Grassy Narrrows wants is no different than what any Canadian would want: clean water, healthy food, freedom from sickness and to be treated with dignity.

Essentially, they want justice. Last and most important of the six demands is, "Restore Grassy Narrows control over Grassy Narrows territory. End destructive logging/clear-cuts on Grassy Narrows Land."

To read of Grassy Narrrows six demands and for more information, please see

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