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Justice for Grassy Narrows

Grassy Narrows First Nation - Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek is taking Canada and Ontario to court over mercury contamination of their life-giving river in northern Ontario. Please donate to support their historic legal action and inspiring 50-year pursuit for justice. 

 

Decades ago, a pulp mill discharged 10 tonnes of mercury waste into the English-Wabigoon river system. Since then, mercury poisoning has affected the lives and health of Grassy Narrows, an Anishnaabe community downstream. Multiple generations of Indigenous people live with the devastating effects of mercury poisoning. 

New research shows that the federal and provincial governments have allowed the pulp mill to continue discharging toxic wastewater, exacerbating and prolonging the mercury crisis for Grassy Narrows. The effluent has resulted in increased methylmercury in the fish that Grassy Narrows people rely on for their sustenance, livelihood, cultural practices, and Treaty rights. The persistent contamination of Grassy Narrows’ river system has severely impacted the lives, health, and well-being of generations of community members.

"We will keep fighting for justice, and we will keep asking the governments to do what's right. We've been hit with a lot of things – we've been hit with mercury, we've been hit with residential schools, we've been hit with forced relocation of our reserve. All these things have hit my community. We've been hit again and again, but we will always come back up again. We are not going away.” 

– Chief Rudy Turtle

Grassy Narrows has pursued justice for their right to health and to meaningfully exercise their Treaty rights, yet, the governments continue to deny them. Grassy Narrows is bringing their inspiring decades-long pursuit for justice to the courts. Please donate to support their legal action.

An intergenerational tragedy

Grassy Narrows’ rivers and fish are poisoned — including the community’s staple food, the walleye. It’s a devastating legacy: to this day, 90% of community members tested experience symptoms of mercury poisoning, which has wide ranging impacts on the nervous system and other organs. Some sufferers can’t see, swallow, speak, or move without difficulty. Others face cognitive impairments and early death. 

Once ingested, mercury bioaccumulates in the body. It also passes from mother to fetus, poisoning one generation to the next. Even today, children of mothers who have eaten contaminated fish during pregnancy are four times more likely to be born with nervous system disorders and learning disabilities. 

This environmental disaster strikes at the very heart of Grassy Narrows’ river-based culture and fishing economy. A thriving commercial fishery closed, sports fishing collapsed, and many people lost their livelihoods.

Decades after this environmental catastrophe, Grassy Narrows has not recovered. New generations continue to suffer. To date, the governments of Canada and Ontario have not cleaned up the river system. Moreover, they have allowed the pulp mill to discharge effluent that contains chemicals and waste products that make the mercury contamination worse. Studies show Grassy Narrows’ fish are still the most mercury contaminated in all of Ontario.

Mercury contamination leads to methylmercury accumulating in the food chain. This poison and other industrial activities such as clear cut logging, discharging of pulp and paper mill effluent, and mining rob Grassy Narrows people of their health and ability to safely exercise their Treaty rights to hunt, fish, and practise their Anishinaabe way of life on their Territory. 

Clean water is the lifeblood of healthy ecosystems and communities. Support the people of Grassy Narrows in their pursuit of clean water — and justice for all.

The toxic legacy of environmental racism

"They dumped over 10 tonnes of mercury into our river. It's Canada's worst health crisis, but the government wants to keep it quiet. We're not going to let them."

— Brown Eagle (Darwin Fobister), Grassy Narrows youth

Instead of taking responsibility for their role in the mercury crisis, and fulfilling their Treaty promises, Canada and Ontario have largely focused on denying and dismissing the harms to Grassy Narrows people. At important times, neither government has been transparent, and both have withheld important information from the community. This includes their decision to not clean up the river system prior to the signing of an agreement in 1985 (an agreement which did not fulfil the governments’ Treaty obligations to Grassy Narrows or provide just compensation). It also includes allowing the pulp mill to discharge effluent that contains chemicals and waste products that are known to exacerbate and prolong mercury contamination.   

For decades, the government told Grassy Narrows ‘the river was cleaning itself up naturally’, despite knowing the fish were still highly contaminated. They permitted the crisis to continue while also allowing  the pulp mill to continue to discharge contaminants into the ecosystem. Recent scientific studies indicate that the pulp mill’s effluent is exacerbating methylation of mercury in the river system, making the mercury problem much worse. Grassy Narrows continues to suffer from these injustices as their health, way of life, and community continue to be severely affected.

Until very recently, the governments have refused to publicly acknowledge the mercury poisoning of the Grassy Narrows community. At Queen's Park in 2017, Environment and Climate Change Minister Glen Murray said about cleaning up the river:

“If you ask me when would I like to have done this? Fifty years ago. I have never seen a case of such gross neglect. I am embarrassed as a Canadian that this ever happened and I can’t understand how people for 50 years sat in that environment office knowing this was going on as a minister and simply didn’t do anything about it.”

Holding Canada And Ontario Accountable for its Treaty Obligations

The governments have failed to protect and restore the lands, waters, and resources on which Grassy Narrows rely for their well-being, cultural survival, and Treaty rights. Grassy Narrows is suing Canada and Ontario for breach of Treaty rights, breach of fiduciary duties, and violation of the Crown’s duties to act honourably in its relationship with Grassy Narrows. The lawsuit is based on the Crown’s continuing failures to meet its obligations to protect Grassy Narrows from the harms of mercury contamination and other industrial impacts, including industrial effluent and resource extraction. The legal action calls on the governments to compensate Grassy Narrows for damages arising from these failures, to act to remediate the river system, and to change the way it governs to respect and uphold their solemn Treaty promises and relationship with Grassy Narrows, instead of harming and disregarding them. 

Grassy Narrows is also going to court over the cumulative impacts of resource extraction on their Territory. Ontario and Canada have authorized decades of forestry, mining exploration, hydroelectric dams, effluent discharge, and other industrial activities without Grassy Narrows' free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Even now the government is considering locating a nuclear waste disposal site in Grassy Narrows’ headwaters. The Crown continues to severely affect Grassy Narrows’ sacred rights and Territory. It has also exacerbated mercury contamination in the life-giving English Wabigoon river, which the Grassy Narrows community has long stewarded.

"It's not just an Indigenous problem; it's a human problem, and now we need to put water in front of our survival as human beings on this planet. I think industry is given too much free reign on our lands to put their pollutants out there and their chemicals, and they need to put water first."

— Judy Da Silva, Community Activist and International Peace Prize winner

The goal of this legal action is to finally bring some measure of justice to Grassy Narrows so that they can protect their lands and waters, restore their Anishinaabe way of life and wellbeing, and secure their children’s health and the health of future generations. The case seeks to establish an important precedent for Canadian governments to remediate the environment when Treaty rights and the health of vulnerable people are affected. 

A judgement affirming that Canada and Ontario breached Treaty 3 and duties owed to Grassy Narrows would strengthen the environmental rights of all Canadians. It would highlight the governments’ obligations to preserve and restore environmental integrity, so Treaty rights can be exercised meaningfully across all of Treaty 3 territory, and that government regulators aren't able to sweep environmental harms under the rug from resource extraction they authorize.

Redressing Injustice

"I listened to testimonies of Indigenous Peoples in Ontario that shared the devastating health consequences of decades of mercury contamination of the Wabigoon and English rivers resulting in the chronic poisoning of their people, including children. I call upon the government of Canada to take all the necessary steps to provide effective remedies and adequate compensation." 

— Francisco Calí Tzay, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Ever since the mercury crisis first came to light in the 1970s, Grassy Narrows has led a growing movement for environmental justice and Indigenous sovereignty. Thousands of people from across the country and around the world have supported Grassy in their research, advocacy, and actions for justice. Facing the devastating health consequences of decades of mercury contamination, the Nation is now calling on allies everywhere to support the legal action to uphold their Treaty rights. 

Join us in supporting Grassy Narrows as they take this bold and historic legal action in their quest for justice.

“We take care of our land and it provides for us. We take only what we need and we leave the rest for our relations in the animal, plant, bird, fish, and spirit life. Our relationship with our land sustains us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as Anishinaabe people. We need the land for our survival as a people.”

– From the Asubpeeschoseewagong Land Declaration

GrassyRiverRun2019-1361

TREATY INFRINGEMENT AND CUMULATIVE IMPACTS CASE LAUNCHED

Grassy Narrows commences a legal action against Canada and Ontario for Treaty infringement and violation of their fundamental rights.

RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS ONGOING NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF PULP MILL

New research shows that the pulp mill is discharging sulphates and organic waste that prolong and exacerbate the mercury crisis. The mill effluent significantly increases the methylation of mercury in the ecosystem, transforming mercury into its most toxic form for humans.

MERCURY RESEARCH

Japanese experts in mercury poisoning report that 90 percent of Grassy members tested show signs of exposure to the toxin.

Grassy Narrows youth set up a blockade, preventing logging trucks from entering their Territory, that has been in place ever since. This inspired thousands of Grassy Narrows people and supporters to hold the first biennial march in Toronto for mercury justice in 2010.

AGREEMENT WITH MILL OWNERS WITHOUT REMEDIATION

The federal and provincial governments pressured Grassy Narrows to settle with the mill owners on issues related to existing mercury contamination while not divulging the governments’ decision to not remediate the river system. Nor did the governments inform Grassy Narrows that the pulp and paper mill would continue to make the problem worse by discharging sulphates and organic waste into the ecosystem, which were scientifically known contributors to the methylation of mercury. The 1985 agreement did not discharge the Crown’s continuing obligations to protect the fish, wildlife, and ecosystems upon which Grassy Narrows’ Treaty rights depend.

MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING (MOU)

Grassy Narrows enters into an MOU with Canada and Ontario to address the adverse effects of pollution on their health, and on the economic, social, cultural, and environmental well-being of their community. Grassy Narrows advocates for compensation and greater control over its Territory in the ensuing negotiations. Ultimately, Ontario unilaterally terminates its negotiations with Grassy Narrows.

FIRST NATION-LED LEGAL ACTION LAUNCHED

Grassy Narrows begins a legal action against the mill owners for damages.

FISHERY CLOSES

The Government of Ontario closes the Wabigoon-English commercial fishery.

MERCURY CONTAMINATION IDENTIFIED

High levels of mercury are identified in the fish downriver from the Dryden mill.

MERCURY DISCHARGED INTO RIVER SYSTEM

Dryden pulp and paper mill begins discharging mercury waste into the Wabigoon River which makes its way into the river system and food chain.

TREATY 3

Treaty 3 is based on the promise that the First Nations would forever be able to carry on their way of life, including fishing, as they had before.

  • June 2024

    TREATY INFRINGEMENT AND CUMULATIVE IMPACTS CASE LAUNCHED

    Grassy Narrows commences a legal action against Canada and Ontario for Treaty infringement and violation of their fundamental rights.

  • 2024

    RESEARCH HIGHLIGHTS ONGOING NEGATIVE EFFECTS OF PULP MILL

    New research shows that the pulp mill is discharging sulphates and organic waste that prolong and exacerbate the mercury crisis. The mill effluent significantly increases the methylation of mercury in the ecosystem, transforming mercury into its most toxic form for humans.

  • 2016

    MERCURY RESEARCH

    Japanese experts in mercury poisoning report that 90 percent of Grassy members tested show signs of exposure to the toxin.

  • 2002

    Grassy Narrows youth set up a blockade, preventing logging trucks from entering their Territory, that has been in place ever since. This inspired thousands of Grassy Narrows people and supporters to hold the first biennial march in Toronto for mercury justice in 2010.

  • 1985

    AGREEMENT WITH MILL OWNERS WITHOUT REMEDIATION

    The federal and provincial governments pressured Grassy Narrows to settle with the mill owners on issues related to existing mercury contamination while not divulging the governments’ decision to not remediate the river system. Nor did the governments inform Grassy Narrows that the pulp and paper mill would continue to make the problem worse by discharging sulphates and organic waste into the ecosystem, which were scientifically known contributors to the methylation of mercury. The 1985 agreement did not discharge the Crown’s continuing obligations to protect the fish, wildlife, and ecosystems upon which Grassy Narrows’ Treaty rights depend.

  • 1978

    MEMORANDUM OF UNDERSTANDING (MOU)

    Grassy Narrows enters into an MOU with Canada and Ontario to address the adverse effects of pollution on their health, and on the economic, social, cultural, and environmental well-being of their community. Grassy Narrows advocates for compensation and greater control over its Territory in the ensuing negotiations. Ultimately, Ontario unilaterally terminates its negotiations with Grassy Narrows.

  • 1977

    FIRST NATION-LED LEGAL ACTION LAUNCHED

    Grassy Narrows begins a legal action against the mill owners for damages.

     

  • 1970

    FISHERY CLOSES

    The Government of Ontario closes the Wabigoon-English commercial fishery.

     

  • 1969-70

    MERCURY CONTAMINATION IDENTIFIED

    High levels of mercury are identified in the fish downriver from the Dryden mill.

     

  • 1962 and Onwards

    MERCURY DISCHARGED INTO RIVER SYSTEM

    Dryden pulp and paper mill begins discharging mercury waste into the Wabigoon River which makes its way into the river system and food chain.

  • 1873

    TREATY 3

    Treaty 3 is based on the promise that the First Nations would forever be able to carry on their way of life, including fishing, as they had before.

CAMPAIGN NEWS

From Blockades to Moratorium to Land Declaration: How Grassy Narrows has Banned Industrial Forestry on their Territory

The Blockade On December 3rd, 2002, two sisters from Asubpeeschoseewagong (Grassy Narrows First Nation) Anishinabek wanted to stop clear-cut logging on their territory. After trying to fall some trees on the road and a broken…

Grassy Narrows bans all industrial logging in territory with historic declaration

Grassy Narrows First Nation declares its territory to be an Indigenous Sovereignty and Protected Area. The new “Grassy Narrows Land Declaration” bans all industrial logging in Grassy Narrows’ Territory and asserts that Grassy Narrows will make their own land use decisions.

Webinar: Environmental Racism – A Story of Colonization and Ecocide

Right now Grassy Narrows is dealing with mercury contamination of their land and water. This example of ecocide has deep and long term environmental consequences. Watch the video to learn more from leaders on the frontlines.

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Asubpeeschoseewagong Anishinabek (Grassy Narrows First Nation) is an Anishinaabe Nation situated 80 kilometres north of Kenora, Ontario, in Canada. The Nation’s membership is approximately 1,700. Their remote traditional Territory spans approximately 8,000 square kilometres. 

The community has lived sustainably for millennia, using the forests, rivers, and lakes for physical, economic, cultural, and spiritual sustenance. Many in the community still depend on hunting, trapping, fishing, and gathering berries and medicines from the land as a core part of their culture and an important part of their diet and way of life.

 

August 18, 2019. Judy DaSilva helps build a new wigwam on the blockade site in Grassy Narrows First Nation. Ontario, Canada.

 

Vision

Grassy Narrows plans to rebuild a thriving Anishinaabe way of life and livelihood on their Territory that restores and strengthens their connection to the land and water. In doing that, Grassy Narrows is stabilizing the climate, harbouring biodiversity, and leading the way to a healthier future for everyone.

The Wabigoon River

 

 

Land Declaration

In 2018 Grassy Narrows adopted a Land Declaration as an expression of sovereignty affirming their relationship to the land as a primary value and the foundation of who they are as Anishinaabe people. A key principle is Manaachitootaa Aki — protect the land. 

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August 17, 2019. Grassy Narrows Summer Powwow in Grassy Narrows First Nation. Ontario, Canada.

 

A legacy of protection

Grassy Narrows has declared a moratorium on further industrial activity in their homeland, in particular industrial logging, mining, oil and gas extraction, and hydroelectric dams. 

"Our relationship with our land sustains us physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually as Anishinaabe people. We need the land for our survival as a people.”

From the Asubpeeschoseewagong Land Declaration