For thousands of years they’ve lived in the Boreal forest. Lived off the land and the food it had to offer. Independent and self sufficient.

In summer, they picked berries and medicines, fished, and dried meat for winter. In fall, they trapped and hunted moose, deer, ducks, partridge, beaver and muskrats. In winter, they hunted rabbit and went ice fishing. And in spring, they tapped the trees for syrup and hunted ducks.

When hordes of European settlers arrived in the Grassy Narrows area in the mid-1800’s, Treaty 3 was signed which outlined how the land would be shared.

The treaty guaranteed the Grassy Narrows people would have the right to continue to live off the land.

But the Ontario government has never fully respected the terms of the treaty nor the rights of the Grassy Narrows people to self-determination.

Instead, the government’s decisions have had devastating consequences for the Grassy Narrows people.

Until 1970, the government took children from their families and forced them into church run residential schools.

In 1950, hydroelectric damming on the English-Wabigoon river flooded sacred burial grounds, destroyed wild rice beds and chased away fur bearing animals.

In the 1960’s, the community was forced to move away from the traditional territory to a reserve near Kenora, Ontario.

Between 1962 and 1970, a Dryden paper mill (then owned by Reed Paper; now owned by the New Domtar) contaminated the Grassy Narrows waters when it dumped 20,000 pounds of mercury into the Wabigoon River.

The mercury contaminated fish not only destroyed a thriving Grassy Narrows commercial fishing industry but produced debilitating health problems for the residents that are still felt today.

“For us, that was a big part of how we lived,” said Chrissy Swain, Grass Narrows mother and youth leader.

The overnight collapse of the fishing industry had dramatic economic consequences for the community and left a huge cultural gap between Swain’s generation and that of her mother’s.

Swain’s mother was born on the land and lived on trap lines. Chrissy was born in a hospital and buys her food in stores.

“They were freer because they were able to get food just from the land,” she said.

In contrast, Swain has to feed her kids the “garbage” that’s being sold in grocery stores. But she’s now learning to hunt, fish and discover natural medicines.

Not only was their way of life disrupted, their language and ceremonies were lost too.

Swain wants to teach her children what it means to be Anishinaabe, to help them learn their forgotten language and how to take back the rights that were stolen from them decades ago.

Without that, there will be no end to the poverty, unemployment and despair.

While Swain admitted it’s a struggle, she remained hopeful of change.

“I would fight to the death for my children,” she said.

She wants to ignite a fire in her people that was extinguished by the decisions of successive provincial governments over the last 60 years.

“Then at least I know that there’s hope for them. We had a way of life and we want that back.”

The Ontario government also allowed multinational corporations to log on Grassy Narrows land without their consent. Almost 50 per cent of the territory has now been logged.

And the province has recently released a clearcut logging plan in Grassy Narrows’ territory for the next decade without proper consultations with the community.

“The province really needs to understand that First Nations have the right to say no to harmful industrial developments in their territories,” said Shane Moffatt, Forest Campaigner for Greenpeace Canada.

“My sense is that they’re not taking seriously the decision making authority or the government of Grassy Narrows.”

Yet Grassy Narrows had make it very clear that they are opposed to clear cut logging in their territory.

Asubpeeschoseewagong, the Indigenous or Anishinaabe name for Grassy Narrows, is situated 80 kilometers north of Kenora, Ontario.

The band membership is approximately 1,000 and their traditional territory spans a forest of approximately 2,500 square miles.

Earlier this week, a group of Grassy Narrows youth arrived in Toronto to demand action on mercury poisoning and land rights, after traveling 2,000 kilometres by foot, train, and bus.

They began their journey on April 29, visiting several Ontario communities along the way to raise awareness of the chemical dumping and mercury poisoning.

On Friday, hundreds of Grassy Narrows people and their supporters gathered at Grange Park, behind the Art Gallery of Ontario, before marching to Queen’s Park to demand justice and protection for their waters and forests.

A gentle breeze blew across the field in Grange Park. The leaves rustled in the wind. Several people gathered under the cool shade of the trees.

The pieces of blue fabric, which would later come together to create a wild river flowing to Queen’s Park, were spread out across the grassy field.

The clack of the staple gun attaching placards to wooden sticks echoed throughout the park.

Later on, Rhythms of Resistance, a political samba-inspired drum band that plays for environmental and social justice, fired up the crowd for the march.

“The people of Grassy Narrows are laying their bodies down for the earth, for the water, for our children,” said Chrissy Swain, who addressed the crowd just before the march left Grange Park.

“So when you’re walking, think about the future of our earth, the future of our people and our children.”

With that, Grassy Narrows and their supporters left Grange Park and headed north on McCaul Street to Dundas Street.

The traditional drummers sang. Others carried signs that read “No Clear Cuts, No Mercury”. Children held up fish puppets. CUPE pink and white flags waved in the wind.

Over 100 people carried the wild river fabric as it wound its way across Dundas Street and up University Avenue on its way to the Legislative Assembly.

John Bonnar

John Bonnar is an independent journalist producing print, photo, video and audio stories about social justice issues in and around Toronto.