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Grassy Narrows: a cause for concern in Northern Ontario


If you are familiar with Northern Ontario, this story may hit close to home for you as something you have grown up hearing about. Grassy Narrows, or the Asubpeeschoseewagong First Nations, are an indigenous tribe whom reside in Northern Ontario, close to Kenora.

With a population of approximately one thousand, the Grassy Narrows First Nations enjoy almost forty square kilometers of serene and flourishing forestland, lakes, and rivers. However, in recent years, the land that the Grassy Narrows hold so dear is being threatened by an Ontario government approval that is subjecting some of this land to clear-cut logging. This type of government intrusion is nothing new to the people of Grassy Narrows. In the early 1960’s, Dryden Pulp Mill, a paper manufacturer, held residence on the land that the people of Grassy call home.

This unwanted visitor was not only infringing on land dedicated to the Native Reserve under federal treaty 3 which dates back to the late 19th century, but the mill was also releasing what was soon to be discovered as extremely toxic, and harmful quantities of mercury in the surrounding lakes and rivers of Grassy Narrows causing the community to be stricken with illness.

The ultimate plan for the Ontario government is to successfully clear part of this land in order to build schools, open up the possibility of mining, and hydro damming among other potential industry. Regardless, the tribe is not giving in lightly.

Thanks to some helpful intel of a Kenora based Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) officer, I learned that in mid July of 2006, the tribe reportedly staged a protest in the form of an impromptu roadblock. They blocked the Trans Canada Highway before highway 671, which leads to Grassy Narrows in the attempt to deny entry to any clearing machinery.

My question is, who can blame them? This peaceful protest is one of many demonstrations from the Grassy Narrows tribe and their supporters; support that has been gaining momentum for over a decade and have caught the eye of organizations such as Rainforest Action Network, other Native communities, and a variety of individuals driven by social, and ecological justice from across North America.

The case of Grassy Narrows is also a unique one when looking at it through a legal scope. The residents of Grassy are actively organizing a lawsuit against the Ontario government under the pretences of violating their Charter Rights.

More specifically, they are citing discrimination in a situation arising from an “environmental degradation”. If successful, this will be the first of such cases to be won in a court of law, and will set a precedent in future trial proceedings.

What the people of Grassy Narrows are concerned about is the frightening, and total disregard for human safety displayed by the Ontario government.

In a recent interview with the CBC, Patricia Sellers comments on how water purity testing has confirmed that lakes and rivers in this area are showing higher than normal readings for mercury from the perspective of both natural standards, as well as government standards for safety. This is not something unknown to the Ontario government.

In the late 70’s, early 80’s, there were a total of eight proposals submitted to the Ontario government, which contained plans to clean up the tainted water after the desistance of the Dryden Pulp Mill that started it all. Each of these eight proposals remained unexecuted and our government ultimately forgot the pursuit for a cleaner Grassy Narrows.

The primary concern for the people of Grassy Narrows is the protection of their own health. The aboriginals of this tribe have witnessed the effects of mercury poisoning for decades at the expense of their friends and loved ones. Mercury poisoning afflicts humans in the form of damage to the brain, kidneys, heart, lungs, and immune system. The effects are extremely serious and in some cases lead to death.

A number of scientific studies have been conducted in an effort to gauge just how serious pollution in the area is. One study concluded that, when testing fish in these aquatic systems, it was found that in some cases, when regarding infants or small children, these fish held fatal doses of mercury if consumed. To this day there are people with ongoing afflictions from the contaminated water even years after the closing of the Dryden Pulp Mill. Knowing the repercussions of clear-cutting, the natives of Grassy Narrows want to protect not only their environment but their people as well.

I got in touch with Trent University’s Professor of Environmental Science, Doug Evans on the subject. Prof. Evans specializes in toxicology of aquatic systems, as well as the pollution patterns of the same. I spoke with Prof. Evans to gain a better perspective on what the people of Grassy Narrows may stand to face if the Ontario government follows through with the plans proposed and if these issues warrant cause for concern.

“This is a really hard question to answer unless you really understand the geochemistry of the [aquatic] system. For example, if you clear-cut a piece of land, you may get an increased load of erosion sediments running into the aquatic system, this could actually be a positive thing in the sense that it may bury the existing mercury sediment.

However on the other hand, if you clear-cut, you’re presumably going to have a lot of organic material going into the systems and could change the geochemistry of the water which could create some sort of chemical imbalance such as lowering the PH in the water or something like that which may actually enhance the amount of mercury you would find in fish, so it’s a really difficult situation.”

The people of Grassy Narrows continue to fight for their human rights, and rights as citizens of this land. There are clear laws that require consent for any government entity to make any changes to reserve land. These requirements were not met and the people of Grassy Narrows are now standing up.

As a result of this, they have gained support from a number of individuals, as well as activist groups. To further your knowledge on the efforts of the Grassy Narrows First Nations, or to get involved yourself, please visit their website located below. Stay informed! Know your rights.

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