Grassy Narrows: Ontario must honour responsibility to uphold Indigenous rights
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.
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.
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.
The Honourable Chris Bentley
Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs
160 Bloor St. East, 4th floor