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Grassy Narrows former chief begins hunger strike in desperate attempt to get government help for his people

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Photo by Krystalline Kraus

I always hesitate to call any situation involving First Nations communities as tragic or devastating, because the last thing this demographic needs is a reinforcement of the trauma or historical sadness that often comes with living under the Indian Act.

Not that I am denying the serious, systemic issues that First Nations, Metis and Inuit communities face, but as communities made up of people, they are much more than the sum of their institutionalized oppression.

So let's start this story with an empowering statement which I hope will spur all Ontarians and Canadians to action.

For this is the story of Grassy Narrows which has held the longest running blockade -- more than ten years -- to prevent the deforestation of their traditional territory.

You see, the story of Grassy Narrows (Asabiinyashkosiwagong Nitam-Anishinaabeg), a community of roughly 1,500 people living in Ontario's high north eighty miles from Kenora, Ontario, is a story of resistance.

The resistance against logging on their traditional territory and the dumping of toxic chemicals into the river system has many facets.

Often the community members of this Treaty Three territory choose to subsidize their diets through fishing or hunting game like moose. With the high rates of unemployment and poverty, families involve themselves in hunting and fishing to augment their diet.

But because the land and water have been poisoned, the whole food chair is now affected. Therefore, the people consuming the food resources themselves are being slowly poisoned all because they choose to -- as is their right under the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples -- engage in traditional hunting and fishing practices.

Logging on Grassy Narrows territory also unsettles the soil. For as the trees are removed, the lack of root systems in the soil allows for old deposits of mercury to rise to the surface and through erosion enter into the rivers. This is especially true of the Wabigoon-English River system that is also shared by the White Dog First Nation.

There was once a glimmer of hope on the political front as two years ago, our now Ontario Premier was once the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs. But mercury poisoning survivors and their families feel abandoned.

While the Government of Canada has contributed a total of more than $9 million for economic and social development initiatives in compensation to the First Nations affected by mercury contamination of the English-Wabigoon River system, no actual clean-up has ever been ordered.

Most importantly, the water itself still contains mercury. Of course, water should be clean for its own right to exist as an element of Creation, but this toxicity also affects all living things.

So community members and band leaders are trying to protect themselves from a danger they can't see, but the effects manifest themselves as Minamata Disease

Despite the fact that the major mercury contamination occurred decades ago, both elders and children are showing the physical effects of mercury poisoning.

If you can, try and imagine holding a small child in your arms that cannot stop shaking

A main source of the chemical contamination of the Wabigoon-English River system and its surrounding area was from chemical processing plants such as the chlorakali processing plant operated by the Dryden Chemical Company.

Offending corporations were finally shut down in 1976 after 24 years of operation, but the damage was already done and its effects devastating to the Indigenous communities and their children.

While the members of the Grassy Narrows First Nations did receive a monetary settlement in 1985 from the government and the Reed Paper Company -- which had bought out the Dryden Pulp and Paper Company and the Dryden Chemical Company -- the mercury still remains in the water and the soil.

For example, as a response, government officials ordered community members to no longer fish in the river, thus removing a main source of food and income levels and a health advisory still remains in effect.

In late 2007, the Ontario government appointed former Federal Court of Canada Chief Justice, Frank Iacobucci, to lead discussions around forestry-related issues, but these talks did not address the issue of mercury in the water or any potential clean-up.

According to a press release for the beginning of the hunger strike by former Grassy Narrows' Chief Steve Fobister Sr., "Yesterday, an expert report was revealed to the public showing that the government has been aware, since 2009 at least, that mercury survivors are receiving inadequate health care, and most are not receiving any compensation. Ontario and Canada have never apologized for even one case of mercury poisoning in Grassy Narrows despite admitting that nine tonnes of mercury was dumped into the English-Wabigoon River between 1962 and 1970 with Ontario's permission."

He went on, "I don't want more talk from the government, I want solutions... I demand a hospital in Grassy Narrows for mercury survivors, proper compensation for everyone, and full assessment and care for the younger generation."

Steve Fobister Sr. who began his hunger strike under the shade of a tarp decorated with political slogans and surrounded by supporters and drummers, claimed he was once the picture of health but the effects of the mercury poisoning have caused devastating neurological effects which hinders his ability to walk among other negative health effects. Thus, the former chief begins his hunger strike at a great personal risk to himself.

Even worse says Clan Mother, Judy Da Silva, is watching the young children suffer. In what is now termed Ontario Minamata Disease, Japanese doctors travelled to the reservations to investigate. A June 4, 2012, report outlined the long-term effects on people who lived along the Wabigoon-English River system.

Community members from Grassy Narrows have travelled to Toronto this week to bring attention to their community's situation.

Grassy Narrows First Nation suffers from the same syndrome as Attawapiskat or Elsipogtog  -- both reserves are so far away from federal government in Ottawa or Queen's Park in Toronto, Ontario, that politicians can afford to not care and likely get away with it.

On the first day of his hunger strike, Fobister Sr. said, "We didn't choose to live on reservations, we didn't choose to be the people of the Indian Act ... the truth is we have been displaced from our homelands. We can't stand being second class citizens of this country, we can't sit idle no more and watch as our land is being destroyed, contaminated, trees being cut down, rocks being turned over.

The ones who suffer are our future generations. That is why I took a stand to go on this hunger strike because things have changed so much it makes me sick."

The people of Grassy Narrows and others who live off the river system have never even received an apology. 

In fact, at a Monday press conference, members of Grassy Narrows First Nations accused the government of hiding a 100+ page report on the effects of mercury poisoning on the health of the community and the land. 

"At the press conference Fobister Sr., the former Treaty #3 Grand Chief, announced an immediate hunger strike until the provincial government acts. He stated today, 'I'm dying anyway, one piece at a time,' as he sufferers from ALS 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 reasoning than these being Indigenous people." 


On Thursday July 31, Grassy Narrow members and their allies will gather at Grange Park in Toronto at 12:00 pm to begin their annual River Run rally to protect the water. Please come down or feel free to follow my coverage for rabble.ca on Twitter @krystalline_k   Please use hashtags #FreeGrassy and #RiverRun

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