Aboriginal Justice: Grassy Narrows: “Clear Cutting Our Way of Life”


AJT - Delegationby Tim Nafziger with Peter Haresnape

During my CPT delegation to Treaty #3 Territory (Grassy Narrows, Ontario), I saw continuing effects of the 500-year history of colonization and genocide on this continent.  I had never come face to face with these realities in a personal way before. 

As a child, Fred* followed the trap line with his family in the winter.  Then the Royal Canadian Mounted Police took him away from his family and placed him in a residential school where staff beat him if he spoke his language. 

Over 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were placed in church-run residential schools.  The first were established in the 1840s and the last one closed just 15 years ago in 1996.  Recorded mortality rates at these schools reached as high as 69% through a combination of poor nutrition, brutal discipline, disease, abuse and neglect. 

Eventually, Fred was able to rejoin his family and return to his community’s traditional ways of hunting and fishing.  Then the Dryden Chemical Company dumped 9,000 kilos of mercury into the English River water system.  Consumption of mercury-contaminated fish over a sustained period causes permanent damage to the nervous system.   

Today Fred shows prominent signs of Minamata disease caused by severe mercury poisoning.  His symptoms include slurred speech, shaky hands and an unsteady walk. Many others in the community show symptoms as well, but only 38% receive any compensation.[1]  

AJT - bannersJay* was walking home from school on the reserve one day when a driver pulled up and offered him a ride home.  But the car didn’t take him home.  It took him to a foster home.  It wasn’t until his mid-twenties that Jay finally got back home to Grassy Narrows. 

Appalling as they are, these stories are neither isolated nor even unusual.  They point to the ongoing strategy of targeting children in a systemic process of destroying indigenous language, culture and identity.  As the residential school system began to decline, child welfare agencies increasingly relied on foster care as a means to this end.  In 1959, 1% of indigenous children were removed from their parents.  By the late 1960s, the rate was 30-40%.[2]  Today, indigenous children are three times more likely to be placed in state care than non-indigenous children.[3]  

Charles Wagamese of Grassy Narrows First Nation describes the foster care system as “clear-cutting” their way of life [4]  – undermining their culture through destroying intergenerational relationships just like intensive logging in the forest destroys whole ecosystems. 

Understanding the many layers of oppression that colonialism inflicts on communities like Grassy Narrows is a necessary part of standing in solidarity with them.  Learning this history is a first step in working to undo these oppressions.

* Names changed

[1] https://goo.gl/MjLpM
[2] Fournier and Crey, 1997, p. 83, quoted in https://goo.gl/SVr5q
[3] https://goo.gl/nNs0x
[4] https://goo.gl/e2HLE

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