Grassy Narrows is a small First Nations community in remote Northern Ontario. According to their website, they are an Ojibwa community who identify as the Asubpeeschoseeewagong First Nation. Their Reserve has fewer than 1000 members. Under Treaty 3, signed in 1873, they were given a large area of land which they were allowed rights to hunt, trap and fish. Between 1876 and 1969, the Residential School system had disrupted much of their culture, and they became increasingly marginalized from their traditional resources and lifestyles.
Image of the Grassy Narrows community today. Source: https://news.vice.com
To make matters worse, much of the land and waters Grassy Narrow’s members still hold today has been destroyed by logging and private industry. Between 1962 and 1970, Dryden Chemicals Ltd dumped almost 10 tons of mercury-laden waste into the English-Wabigoon river system. The toxic sludge eventually made its way into Lake Winnipeg. For almost 50 years, the two First Nations communities in this region have suffered from mercury poisoning, loss of important food resources, and loss of jobs and a steadily declining economy. Dryden Chemical has denied any accountability for their actions, claiming that mercury present in the water is due to natural sources, and that factory effluent is only a small percent of the mercury present. While the Federal government has paid close to $9 million to Grassy Narrows for social services and economic development initiatives, Ontario has contributed little to the community. Through it all, the Province of Ontario has shrugged off any responsibility they might have for clean-up costs and financial support to Grassy Narrows.
Dryden Chemical Paper Mill. Source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10536091
More than 50 years later, several members of Grassy Narrows made the long bus ride to Toronto. On June 2, 2016, Grassy Narrows joined over 2500 supporters at Queen’s Park, in front of the Provincial Parliament Building. There, people rallied and marched in support of Grassy Narrows.
Parliament building at Queen’s Park, in Toronto, Ontario. Source: Paul Stephany, 2016.
While Premier Kathleen Wynne remained hidden away, invisible to the assembled audience, Grassy Narrows elders and youth educated those assembled on this shameful story in Ontario history. As of now, no clean-up of the mercury has occurred. Even though scientists support research which shows that clean up of the area is possible, the Ontario government still insists that more study and analysis is necessary. Meanwhile, Grassy Narrows community members are still sickened, dying, and poverty stricken!
What is clear is that, while scientific and community commitment to water cleanup is intact, political will remains ambiguous. The story of Grassy Narrows needs to be told and retold, until the government of Ontario is forced to listen and finally collaborate with this community to make the waters and people healthy once again!
After the rally, Grassy Narrows members, along with supporters and allies, flooded the streets and marched from Queen’s Park to Allan Gardens – just over two kilometers away. The street was blocked off, and all traffic halted, as the growing surge of concerned citizens walked and chanted the entire way. One by one, each person symbolically turned away from a government intent on ignoring the voices of the people, and began their first steps toward Ottawa. Discontent with Ontario’s response to their plight, Grassy Narrows stands poised to once again tell their story to Justin Trudeau – forcing him remain accountable to his promises to begin reconciling past injustices with First Nations groups across Canada.
This last Thursday, a few voices joined with a swelling number of voices – telling a story which must be heard – and even more importantly, MUST be acted upon. This is a story which needs to be removed from the back shelves once and for all. Perhaps, finally, we will begin listening to each of these stories – and acting as a Nation who is truly concerned with redressing the harmful chapters of our collective history!
For now, this is Spatial Integrity – making the invisible, visible!