Logging, mercury and activism at Grassy Narrows

Whiskey Jack Forest (Boyce 2009).

Whiskey Jack Forest (Boyce 2009).

During the first week of June 2012, members of Asubpeechoseewagong Anishinabek (AA) (Grassy Narrows First Nation in English) along with supporters from neighbouring First Nations and environmental and human rights organizations gathered on the steps of Ontario’s provincial legislature in Toronto for the River Run Rally 2012. The River Run was organized by activists from AA to bring awareness to the disproportionate share of environmental pollution this community has suffered, mainly in the form of mercury, due to over 50 years of forestry operations in the Whiskey Jack Forest and the Wabigoon River watershed.

The week of events began on June 5th with a discussion about the health and social impacts of mercury poisoning with Judy Da Silva, activist and Grandmother from AA, and Dr Hanada, a mercury researcher from Japan who has studied mercury toxicity in Grassy Narrows and White Dog First Nations as well as Minimata, Japan. The next day AA invited Premier Dalton McGuinty and other senior members of government to a fish fry on the lawn of the provincial legislature to share in a meal of mercury-contaminated fish fresh from the lakes of the Wabigoon River system. Perhaps it is needless to say, the guests of honour did not attend. (Which meant more fish for us hungry supporters at supper!)
The week wrapped up with a march through the streets of Toronto where hundreds of meters of blue fabric were deployed to evoke a river flowing through the streets, complete with papier-mâché fish, destined for the steps of the legislature where passionate speakers from AA and their allies, including Warren White, the Grand Chief of the Grand Council of Treaty #3, delivered rousing speeches. These events are the latest in over a decade of action by AA activists, which can be better understood with a brief description of this activism’s geographical and historical context.

The Whiskey Jack forest (WJF) is the name given to the forest management unit that encompasses the traditional hunting and fishing grounds and waters of AA by Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Kenora District, Northwest Region. (see map) It is within the boreal biogeoclimatic zone and is mainly covered with coniferous forests comprised of Pine, Spruce, Poplar and a minority of Fir trees. WJF provides habitat for many fauna including: Woodland Caribou, Great Grey Owl, Moose, Marten, White-tailed Deer, Boreal Red-backed Vole, Northern Flying Squirrel, Snowshoe Hare, American Kestrel, Boreal Chickadee, White-throated Sparrow, Swainson’s Thrush, American Redstart, Connecticut Warbler, Pileated Woodpecker, Spruce Grouse and Golden-crowned Kinglet (Boyce, 2009).

Logging in this area began over 100 years ago when red and white pines were harvested from the shores of Lake of the Woods. Pulp wood operations began in the 1920s when the Abitibi-Consolidated Company constructed a mill in Kenora. Log and pulpwood harvest continued and expanded north towards the areas inhabited by AA until the 1960s. The northern most reaches of the Whiskey Jack Forest were not accessed until the 1970s. Most of the WJF logging operations occurred here in the 1980s and ‘90s. This expansion has left an extensive network of roads throughout the area making it easily accessible to industrial activity (Boyce, 2009).

In the last three decades, industrial logging operations in the WJF have conflicted with the Anishinabe way of life as the flora and fauna AA traditionally rely on for food and medicine have been disrupted by clear-cut logging. AA argues that these conflicts contravene Treaty #3, an agreement reached between agents of Queen Victoria and First Nations of the area in 1873.

In August of 2011, the Superior Court of Ontario ruled that under Treaty #3 the province of Ontario lacks the authority to issue logging licenses on the tract of land understood to have been “surrendered” by the ancestors of AA to the “Dominion of Canada” since the agreement was made with a federal entity rather than the provincial one. At issue is the “Harvesting Clause” in the Treaty that guarantees that the “Ojibway” will have the right to continue hunting and fishing on the land in question “saving and excepting such tracts as may, from time to time, be required or taken up for settlement, mining, lumbering or other purposes by Her said Government of the Dominion of Canada, or by any of the subjects thereof, duly authorized therefore by the said Government” (Keewatin v. Ministry of Natural Resources, 2010).

The side effects of industrial logging are only a fraction of many hardships AA has had to bear in recent history. The River Run 2012 marks the 50th anniversary of the mercury contamination of the Wabigoon River system. Beginning in 1960, the Dryden Mill released an estimated amount of over 9000 kilograms of mercury directly into the English-Wabigoon River system, which lies upstream from AA’s traditional territory. (Vecsey, 1987). The mercury was not officially discovered until 1972, but by then, much of the damage had already been done to those who consumed contaminated fish on a regular basis, part of the traditional lifestyle of AA. The devastating health effects manifested themselves in a variety of ways, all which have been carefully documented over three decades by a team of Japanese scientists who became interested in the subject after studying survivors of Minimata disease (mercury poisoning) in Japan, a disease named for a Japanese fishing village that suffered mercury pollution similar to AA (Harada, 2005).

The contamination shut down the commercial and tourism fisheries in the area and not only destroyed most of the employment opportunities available to the residents of the reserve, but made the traditional lifeways of the Anishinaabek a deadly pursuit. The threats to the community’s health are not only persistent, but also accumulative and worsening (Harada, 2005). The extreme social disturbances for the people of AA have been well documented by several researchers (Erikson, 1994; Hutchinson, 1977; Shkilnyk; 1985, Vescey; 1987).

Tired of her community being treated as industry’s waste basket, Chrissy Swain, an activist and youth leader from AA, began a blockade on a logging road adjacent to the Grassy Narrows reserve on December 3rd 2002. The blockade still stands today, earning it the title of longest standing First Nations logging blockade in Canadian history. Over the past decade the blockade has been populated by supporters such as the Rainforest Action Network, Amnesty International, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and many independent groups working to protect the First Nation’s right to self determination and a healthy environment.

Ever since, Swain has fought tirelessly against the destructive industrial activities on her traditional territory, most recently accompanying a group of AA residents over 2000kms to Toronto for the River Run Rally. This group included over a dozen young people from the reserve, four of which embarked on a month long walk, all the way from Grassy Narrows to Toronto. Swain’s eldest son, Edmund, acting on a dream he had about protecting the water, said he led the walk because there were many young people in his community that were not aware of the mercury issue and he wants the next generation to be inspired to act in the same way he and his mother have.

Sitting on the lawn of the provincial legislature, listening to Chrissy speak, her young daughter standing dutifully at her side, I hear the message loud and clear: “Please keep supporting us. Do not quit now. Make your friends and family understand the importance of the water. It is not just our future, but all of our futures. Miigwetch.”

If you would like to learn how to support the people of AA Grassy Narrows please visitfreegrassy.org.

Further Reading
  • Boyce, Robert P. “Forest Management Plan for the Whiskey Jack Forest – Kenora District, Northwest Region, MNR Abitibi-Consolidated Company of Canada for the Twenty-year Period from April 1, 2004 to March 31, 2024.” Technical Report, April 2, 2009.
  • Harada, M., and Miyakita, T. 2005 (trans. Tadashi Orui) “Long-term study on the effects of mercury contamination on two indigenous communities in Canada (1975-2004)” Research on Environmental Disruption. Vol. 34 No. 4., xx-xx.
  • Keewatin V. Minister of Natural Resources 2011 ONSC 4801 Court File No. 05-CV-281875PD”, August 16, 2011
  • Vecsey, Christopher. 1987. “Grassy Narrows Reserve: Mercury Pollution, Social Disruption, and Natural Resources: A Question of Autonomy” in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 4, pp. 287-314.
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Christine Grossutti

I am a PhD Candidate in the Department of Geography at Queen's University. My doctoral research concerns a critical history of UNESCO Biosphere Reserves and material practices of sustainable development.

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