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Grassy Narrows First Nation

Grassy Narrows First Nation (Asubpeeschoseewagong) is an Indigenous community in Northwestern Ontario that has been contending with the effects of mercury contamination from the Dryden Chemicals pulp and paper mill

Historical Context

The affirmation of Indigenous land rights—and relevant negotiations—around the Royal Proclamation eventually led to the establishment of the Peace and Friendship Treaties in Atlantic Canada, and the numbered treaties in the central and western parts of Canada. Among the numbered treaties was Grand Council Treaty #3, originally planned to be the first treaty signed after Confederation. Negotiations, however, were protracted “as the Anishinaabe held firm that they would not cede lands, nor allow farming or settlement.” The treaty was signed on October 3, 1873, covering thousands of miles along the Canada/US border, from Ontario to Manitoba. Grand Council Treaty #3 territory is currently comprised of 28 different First Nations, including the Grassy Narrows (Asubpeeschoseewagong) First Nation.

Map of Anishinaabe Nation in Treaty #3.
Map of Treaty 3 Territory according to the Grand Council Treaty #3.

The Grassy Narrows First Nation has faced intense structural violence, like many Indigenous communities in Canada. Barraged with unsanctioned industrial development for decades—with a large swath of their land being flooded by Ontario Hydro for hydroelectric development—the community was relocated in the 1960s. Continual pressure from colonial development has undermined and destroyed many elements of traditional food systems by damaging the English-Wabigoon river system and the Whiskey Jack Forest, which provide access to food and other resources as well as having cultural significance. The community has had to struggle against clear-cutting with blockades and activism to protest against infringement on their sovereignty and rights, although the most harmful and well-known environmental incident to occur in the community was the massive dumping of mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system.

Mercury Contamination

Beginning in 1962 and ending in 1970, the Dryden Chemicals pulp and paper mill dumped approximately 9000 kilograms of mercury into the English-Wabigoon river system. The rivers and the animals within them are central to Anishinaabe culture and economy, and the environmental damage has had devastating effects.

Mercury settles into rivers and can remain for very long periods of time. Through a process called bio-methylation, mercury is converted into an organic form that is very harmful when consumed. This compound slowly filters its way up the food chain and ends up contaminating fish with high concentrations of the deadly metal. The presence of mercury in humans can impair the senses, cause a variety of neurological disorders, and generally accelerate body deterioration. It has also been linked to much higher odds of birth defects. The pollution of the river has led to ongoing health issues in those living in Grassy Narrows, including a rise in cases of epilepsy, two children being born with pre-existing brain cancer in 2007, in addition to the other symptoms associated with mercury poisoning. To this day the full effects of mercury on the community’s health are still being investigated.

The mercury contamination also had devastating effects on the economic well-being of the community, as in addition to many people being unable to work because of mercury poisoning, resources from the river and commercial fishing–critical sources of food an income–were affected. The fishing market provided the community with stability for many generations, and commercial fishing was banned after the incident, removing one of the primary traditional ways of creating income. Unemployment in Grassy Narrows rose to 90% directly after the incident, and today remains at nearly 40%.

Response and Present Day

A group of elders help to lead the Grassy Narrows community march through Toronto. Image by Shelby Gilson. Canada, 2019. In the accompanying article, author Shelby Gilson writes, “as a result of government inaction, a culture of activism has been passed from generation to generation in Grassy Narrows and the youth of the community are forced to fight for the same causes their grandparents fought for with the hopes that the Canadian government is finally ready to listen.”

The aftermath of the mercury contamination has been devastating to the people and environment of Grassy Narrows, persisting across generations. In terms of health, according to Jody Porter’s reporting for CBC in 2016, “[n]inety per cent of the population in Grassy Narrows experiences symptoms of mercury poisoning, which include neurological problems ranging from numbness in fingers and toes to seizures and cognitive delays.” Economic and social damage in the community also continues, despite the passage of time and the rise of several activist movements. Today, there are several programs, many women-led, dedicated to preserving and re-teaching the culture of the Anishinaabe. The Grand Council has released declarations about water and its importance to their way of life, and the community as a whole continues to fight for their cultural preservation. However, as the mercury could remain in the river system for up to a century before dissipating, the damage to the community is ongoing. The issue has been further exacerbated by the clear-cutting and dumping of toxic waste by industry, and continued infringement on territorial rights.

While there has been some recognition of the harm done—a settlement agreement, and funding for environmental remediation—many still feel strongly that there has been no justice yet in terms of mercury contamination, and action continues to move forwards regarding it and other environmental damage. Due to this, Grassy Narrows is a focal point of environmental justice and legal disputes with the Canadian government and reflects similar disputes that play out across the country.

Additional Resources

  • An article exploring the Grassy Narrows in a broader political context.
  • The recent study exploring health impacts in the community.
  • Free Grassy, a site dedicated to the support of the community and disseminating related news.
  • A more contemporary article exploring the immediate effects of the disaster and Indigenous autonomy.

Contributors: Nathaniel Bilsky, Breea Chamberlain, Marlee Hansen, and Isaac Scott