I find myself wondering how long it took a pulp and paper mill to dump tons of mercury into the river upstream of Asubpeeschoseewagong Netum Anishinabek (also known as Grassy Narrows First Nation). And how long did it take for someone to make the decision to dispose of mercury in this way? Because more than 50 years later, the impacts of this action are still being felt in Grassy Narrows. Local waterways and fish are still unsafe for consumption and many community members live with serious health problems due to mercury poisoning. Many have died prematurely.
I have been reflecting on what has changed over time—and how much time change takes—because of a recent return visit to Asubpeeschoseewagong with CPT – Turtle Island Solidarity Network. What keeps coming to mind is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s reminder that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Change towards the good does happen, but it seems to take so much more time and effort than it takes to dump mercury or clear-cut a forest.
My first visit to Grassy Narrows was in 2002. At that time, the community was three years into their first lawsuit against government and industry bodies for violating treaty rights. The lawsuit was tied up in pretrial motions, logging companies were clear-cutting traditional lands and destroying trap lines, and a blockade of the logging road seemed imminent. I was a recent university graduate living in Winnipeg, who naively wanted to make a difference and was quite overwhelmed by the stories of suffering that I heard from this community. The theme that I walked away with was that “things were bad and then they got worse, and worse, and worse…” I left Grassy Narrows feeling as bleak as the clearcut forest areas we visited. The community had experienced decades of oppression, neglect and racism, and I didn’t think there was enough hope there to energize a blockade.
I was wrong. A blockade began shortly after I left and a timeline of the next decades shows multiple walks from Grassy Narrows to Toronto, boycotts, sovereignty statements, River Run rallies and legal actions organized by the community and a growing number of supporters to demand change from the provincial and federal governments and from industry. By the time I returned to the community in 2023, all lumber companies in the region had committed not to accept wood from the Whiskey Jack Forest without the consent of the Grassy Narrows band council, and the Ontario government had just released a 10-year forest management plan that respects Grassy Narrows’ moratorium on logging on their territory. While the government has yet to formally recognize Grassy Narrows’ declared Indigenous Protected and Conserved Area, these steps lead me to feel a sense of hope.
The actions, advocacy and resistance of Asubpeeschoseewagong have not had the same instantaneous impacts as the dumping of mercury into the river system, but change is slowly happening.
When I asked someone in Kenora what changes they had noticed over the years, the response was that people can now be seen around town wearing ribbon skirts. Racism is still prominent—the attitudes of settlers have not changed as much as those of Indigenous people, who now publicly demonstrate pride in themselves and their culture.
Researchers have said that in the absence of leaks, the river’s mercury levels should have returned to normal by now; since this has not happened, the area must be experiencing ongoing pollution rather than just the aftermath of dumping mercury in the 1960s1. In 2016, buried mercury was found on the Dryden Mill site. On Turtle Island, we are not simply experiencing the aftermath of colonization, residential schools, and the 60s scoop among other destructive practices. Although these are each significant, there is also ongoing racism leaking from settler systems into settler attitudes and vice versa.
I find myself wondering how long it will take for the Grassy Narrows Land Declaration (created in 2015) to become unnecessary and redundant. At what point will Indigenous people not need to “assert our inherent sovereignty and our inalienable right to self-determination on our Indigenous homeland” and state repeatedly that “Our land and our rights are given by the Creator and only the Creator can take them away.”2 Currently, Ontario’s mining claims system does not respect these rights, but allows companies to stake claims without consent from First Nations. Concern from Asubpeeschoseewagong and other First Nations is that these mining claims will be the next fight.
While “the arc of the moral universe” may bend toward justice, it seems to need significant help to do so. I am inspired by the decades of work put in by people of Grassy Narrows to protect their homelands. And I commit to doing my part to stop the racism that continues to leak into our society through government policies, industry practices and personal attitudes.
- Wong HCG. Mercury poisoning in the Grassy Narrows First Nation: history not completed. CMAJ. 2017 Jun 5;189(22):E784. doi: 10.1503/cmaj.733011. PMID: 28584045; PMCID: PMC5461130.
- See the entire land declaration and its context at https://freegrassy.net/grassy-narrows-land-declaration-bans-all-industrial-logging/.