Grassy Narrows Youth Walkers. (Photo: Maria Madea Swain)

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Over 50 people of all ages from Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) are travelling 2000 km to Toronto by foot, bus and rail from their territories 80 km north of Kenora, Ontario.

They are travelling such great distances for the 2012 River Run, a week of educational, media and social movement-building events June 5-8. They’re demanding justice for a series of health, economic and environmental wrongs that are still being ignored by the provincial and federal governments.

Grassy Narrows led a similar series of events two years ago to raise awareness about their community’s struggle for clean water, after the Ontario government allowed a Dryden pulp and paper mill to dump mercury into the English-Wabigoon River for eight years from 1962-1970.

Demanding action on water contamination 

The contamination has led to health concerns, impacts on their water, and affected fish, the basis of their subsistence and economy. With glaring inaction by governments to address their concerns, Grassy Narrows returns this year with a newly updated health study, speaking events, and a challenge to Premier McGuinty to come eat their community’s fish.

The week of action will culminate with a dramatic ‘River Run’ march to Queen’s Park, with 15,000 square feet of blue fabric which will be used to mimic the way the river should flow in their northern communities.

Though governments seem unwilling to address Grassy Narrows’ health concerns – including incidents of delayed development in children, cerebral palsy and seizures – Grassy Narrows is hoping today’s release of a newly updated health study on their community by renowned Japanese mercury expert Dr. Harada will garner the irrevocable attention of governments and Ontarians.

According to River Run 2012 organizers, Grassy Narrows are coming to create a “wild river that will flow to Queen’s Park to demand long overdue justice for their people and protection for the waters and forests on which they depend.”

Strong alliances of support for Grassy Narrows

Though it is unclear if governments will break with tradition and decide to take action to help clean up and monitor the impacts of mercury on these peoples’ water and health, what is clear is that the people of Grassy Narrows have been very successful in building awareness and support within a broader movement of environmental and indigenous solidarity activists across Ontario and other provinces and nations.

In addition to coping with the devastating impacts of the mercury-contamination scandal, members of Grassy Narrows have also led extraordinarily direct action blockades since 2002 to protect their forests from industrial logging. They’ve maintained the longest road blockade in Canadian history and built alliances with groups like the Christian Peacemakers and numerous environmental organizations who support their land defence, assertion of their Aboriginal rights and share their goals to protect Ontario’s threatened boreal forest.

Grassy Narrows’ inspiring direct actions continue. Last year, a group of women in Grassy Narrows blocked the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) from trying to interfere with their communities’ maintenance of bridges and back roads on their territories, used to access hunting, trapping, wild rice, medicine and berry picking areas.

Retaliation against community resistance

Ontario stopped maintaining the back roads in retaliation for Grassy Narrows’ strong stance against clearcutting. When Grassy Narrows took up the maintenance work themselves, they were visited by enforcement officers who issued threats of massive fines for their continued road and bridge maintenance.

“The MNR attempt to stop maintenance of the roads is an attack on our community’s self sufficiency,” said Roberta Keesick in 2011, a Grassy Narrows grandmother, trapper, and blockader. “It is another attempt by the Province to assert unilateral control over the Territory in violation of our inherent and treaty rights.”

The direct action forced the Minister to intervene and commit to fix the bridge at the governments expense, but grassroots Grassy Narrows organizers won’t stop until their right to make decisions on their own land is respected.

Youth take long walk for justice 

The community of Grassy Narrows continues to spawn new projects of resistance and strength in the face of such challenges, including the “Makade Mukwa Walk for Water”. A group of Indigenous Anishnabe youth have been walking since late April to make the 2000 km journey to Toronto for this week’s River Run.

Youth walker Edmond Jack says “we are walking with a group of young people to raise awareness about chemical dumping and mercury poisoning that the government and corporations have caused over the past decades, and to keep that message strong for the next generation, to carry on that message so that people don’t forget that the water is still being poisoned.”

Through their persistent direct actions, initiatives and events like the River Run, Grassy Narrows continues to inspire new generations of land defenders who are willing to take direct action to protect forests, waters and assert indigenous rights. Grassy Narrows’ grassroots leadership fosters a broader environmental justice movement by connecting the dots across social and environmental struggles, from human rights to safe drinking water, deforestation and impacts on wildlife and indigenous sovereignty.

Grassy’s ongoing community and movement building work extends to allies outside of their territories and northwestern Ontario. Over the decades, larger non-governmental organizations such as US-based Rainforest Action Network, Amnesty International, the Council of Canadians and Greenpeace Canada have helped publish reports and garner media attention for Grassy Narrows’ story and demands for justice.  

Through personal relationship building with dedicated activists and supporters, newer grassroots organizing continues to sprout in different communities, like the Indigenous People’s Solidarity Movement in Winnipeg, which started as the Friends of Grassy Narrows solidarity group; and in Toronto the newly-founded Earth Justice Action: Supporting Indigenous Land Defense, which directs solidarity projects to support Grassy Narrows.

Though Grassy Narrows continues to assert their rights, demand justice through action and grow their support base, more advocates are always needed. Grassy Narrows invites everyone to join this year’s River Run events in Toronto and “continue a tradition of community led action for justice – for our people, and for the protection of the water, air, and forests that give us all life”.


Natalie Caine is a writer and community organizer based in Toronto, Ontario with a special interest in supporting environmental and social justice struggles through communications, media, research, facilitation and music. She is supporting the community of Grassy Narrows through education and outreach for the 2012 River Run.