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Grassy Narrows: Ontario must honour responsibility to uphold Indigenous rights

    Wednesday, November 21, 2012 - 00:00
    ‘Everything around us was disappearing... The clean water, our way of life, our traditions, even the wild rice picking and blueberry picking were all disappearing. It's all connected to the land.’ - Judy DaSilva, Grass Narrows

    It has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in Canadian history. Between 1962 and 1970, a mill in Dryden, Ontario dumped more than 9 metric tons of untreated inorganic mercury into the English and Wabigoon Rivers in Northwestern Ontario.

    These waters had been a source of both food and jobs for the people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) and neighbouring First Nations. Community members had worked as guides and as staff in the many commercial fishing lodges. When the mercury dumping was discovered, the commercial fishery was closed, cutting the people off from their most important source of income.

    Even worse, it was discovered that many of the residents had greatly elevated levels of mercury in their bodies and were exhibiting signs of the neurological degeneration associated with mercury poisoning.

    Compensation provided to the communities more than a decade later was based on the assumption that the effects of the mercury contamination would soon go away. That assumption has proven false.

    Elevated levels of mercury continue to be found in the rivers and fish. And community members, including youth, continue to suffer from disproportionate rates of serious health problems associated with mercury poisoning. Scientists who have compared the lasting impact of the infamous mercury poisoning incident in Minamata, Japan with the situation at Grassy Narrows, have coined the term "Canadian Minamata disease" to describe the health consequences of chronic exposure to mercury levels government officials still insist are safe.

    After the closure of the commercial fishery, the province began promoting expansion of large-scale industrial logging in the region. The people of Grassy Narrows consider clear-cut logging to be an unacceptable threat to their remaining ability to live off the land -and a key factor in the persistent contamination of their territory.

    In January, 2007, the people of Grassy Narrows called for a moratorium on industrial logging and other resource development in their traditional territory. In the face of a successful community blockade of logging, the province has entered into talks about the long term management of the forest. However, the province has never ruled out renewed logging, with or without the community's consent.

    Take Action

    Write a letter to Ontario Minister of Aboriginal Affairs Chris Bentley urging the Province to at long last respect and uphold the rights of the people of Grassy Narrows.

    Sample letter:

    Dear Minister, 

    The people of Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows) have suffered decades of injustice. Their culture, economy and way of life have been pushed to the brink of destruction. 

    As community leaders have long stressed, control over and use of the forest is critical to finding a path out of the severe poverty, ill-health, and cultural loss that been inflicted upon the people of Grassy Narrows.

    I stand with the people of Grassy Narrows in calling for ongoing, community-run monitoring of their waters and respect for their right to say no to unwanted forms of development on their traditional territory.

    Write To

    Minister of Aboriginal Affairs
    The Honourable Chris Bentley
    Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs
    160 Bloor St. East, 4th floor
    Toronto, Ontario
    M7A 2E6

    More Background

    In 2002, community members at Grassy Narrows launched a blockade to stop clearcut logging in their traditional territory. The blockade is one of the longest running Indigenous land protests in Canadian history.
    In 2008, the Boise paper company - a major client of AbitibiBowater's Fort Frances mill - announced that it would stop buying pulp from wood logged at Grassy Narrows until the community gave its consent.
    Shortly afterward, AbitibiBowater announced that its Fort Frances mill would stop processing wood from Grassy Narrows. The company also said that it wanted to give up the provincial license under which it manages all logging in the Whisky Jack forest.
    While this has temporarily halted logging at Grassy Narrows, without an agreement from the province, the future is uncertain. 
    Canadian law requires a process of good faith consultation and meaningful accommodation of Indigenous concerns whenever government decisions might affect the rights of Indigenous peoples. In some instances, Canadian law, like international human rights standards, requires that no action be taken except with the consent of the affected peoples.
    Given the harm that has already been done to the people of Grassy Narrows, the precarious stituation in which they now live, Amnesty International has urged the provincial government to apply the highest standard of protection to their rights.
    In a September 2007 briefing paper, Amnesty International urged the province of Ontario to respect the moratorium called by the people of Grassy Narrows so that their rights would not be further eroded by continued large-scale resource extraction activities taking place against their wishes.